Immunolesions of the cholinergic basal forebrain were produced in rats using various intraventricular doses of the immunotoxin 192 immunoglobulin G-saporin: 0.34, 1.34, 2.0, 2.7 and 4.0 micrograms/rat. A battery of behavioral tests, chosen on the basis of reported sensitivity to conventional medial septal or nucleus basalis lesions, was administered. Dose-dependent impairments were found in acquisition, spatial acuity and working memory in the water maze. Dose-dependent hyperactivity in the open field and in swimming speed was observed. The highest dose group (4.0 micrograms) exhibited motoric disturbances which were particularly apparent in swimming and in clinging to an inclined screen. Response and habituation to acoustic startle were diminished in the three higher dose groups. Histological results from acetylcholinesterase and low-affinity nerve growth factor receptor staining showed that the lesion was selective for cholinergic neurons bearing p75 nerve growth factor receptors in the basal forebrain nuclei. However, some Purkinje cells in the superficial layers of the cerebellum were also destroyed at the higher doses of immunotoxin. The activity of choline acetyltransferase, used as a marker of cholinergic deafferentation in regions innervated by the basal forebrain nuclei, was decreased with increasing doses to a plateau level of about 90% (average depletion) for the two highest dose groups. These two groups were the only ones to exhibit consistent and severe behavioral impairments on all behavioral tests performed. Thus, for a relatively selective cholinergic basal forebrain lesion, almost a 90% reduction in choline acetyltransferase activity is needed to produce substantial behavioral deficits. It appears that either a considerable safety factor exists or robust compensatory mechanisms can ameliorate behavioral deficits from a major, but incomplete loss of cholinergic basal forebrain innervation.