Putative cholinergic axons and synaptic endings were demonstrated in the substantia nigra (SN) of the rat by light and electron microscopy on the basis of the localization of choline acetyltransferase (ChAT) immunoreactivity. The distribution of ChAT immunoreactivity in the SN as demonstrated by light microscopy revealed a modest network of ChAT-immunoreactive beaded axons in the SNc, in comparison to a relatively sparse distribution in the SNr. These axonal profiles were most dense in the middle of the rostral-caudal extent of the SNc and appeared to be concentrated in the middle third of the medial-lateral extent. By electron microscopy, unmyelinated, small diameter (0.25 micron) ChAT-immuno-reactive axons were observed interspersed among numerous other non-immunoreactive axons in the SNc. ChAT-immunoreactive synaptic endings were observed in juxtaposition to small caliber (0.5 micron) non-immunoreactive dendrites, and contained numerous spheroidal synaptic vesicles and occasional mitochondria. Synaptic contact zones were characterized by an accumulation of synaptic vesicles along the presynaptic membrane, and a prominent postsynaptic densification producing an asymmetrical pre-/postsynaptic membrane profile typical of excitatory synapses. These findings provide direct evidence for a cholinergic innervation of the SN, and suggest that this input may have an excitatory effect on neuronal elements in the SNc.