The human lower esophageal sphincter (LES) is believed to be innervated by nonadrenergic, noncholinergic inhibitory nerves, and cholinergic excitatory nerves. In idiopathic achalasia, LES relaxation is abnormal because the inhibitory nerves to the sphincter are either absent or functionally impaired. The integrity of cholinergic excitatory nerves to the LES, however, has not been thoroughly evaluated. In 27 patients with untreated idiopathic achalasia, and 21 healthy volunteers, we investigated the hypothesis that postganglionic cholinergic nerves to the LES are functionally intact in achalasia. The LES responses to atropine, edrophonium, methacholine, amyl nitrite, and pentagastrin were assessed. In 2 achalasia patients, patterns of fasting motor activity in the LES were investigated during overnight manometric studies. Resting LES pressure was significantly greater in the achalasia patients, 41 +/- 4 mmHg (mean +/- SE), than in the normal subjects, 20 +/- 2 mmHg. Atropine significantly reduced LES pressure in both groups by 30%-75%. Edrophonium increased LES pressure in the achalasia patients but had negligible effect on the normal subjects. The LES in achalasia patients exhibited an increased sensitivity to both methacholine and pentagastrin compared with the normal subjects. In both patients who underwent an overnight manometric study, the LES exhibited cyclic phasic contractile activity synchronous with gastric contractions during the migrating motor complex. We conclude that the study findings support the hypothesis that postganglionic cholinergic LES innervation in achalasia patients is either normal or only minimally impaired, in contrast to the marked impairment of the inhibitory nerves governing LES relaxation.