Activation of transfected muscarinic m1 acetylcholine receptors (m1AChR) has been linked to several signal transduction pathways which include phosphoinositide hydrolysis, arachidonic acid release and cAMP accumulation. In Chinese hamster ovary cells stably transfected with the rat m1AChR gene, carbachol elicited all three responses with EC50 values of 2.6, 3.8 and 76 microM, respectively. However, pilocarpine and the selective muscarinic agonist AF102B activated phosphoinositide hydrolysis (by 94 and 27% vs. carbachol, respectively), while antagonizing carbachol-mediated cAMP accumulation. Carbachol also activated (by 4-fold) adenylyl cyclase in membranes prepared from these cells, indicating independence of this signal from intracellular mediators. Moreover, carbachol and AF102B similarly elevated cytosolic Ca2+ in intact m1AChR-transfected cells. The ligand-selective cAMP accumulation, its independence from Ca2+ and the carbachol-activated adenylyl cyclase in membranes suggest that it represents an independent m1AChR-mediated signal, unrelated to phosphoinositide hydrolysis. Selective muscarinic ligands such as AF102B may independently activate distinct signalling pathways, which may be important for designing cholinergic replacement therapy for treating Alzheimer's disease.