The ontogenic profiles of several cholinergic markers were assessed in the rat brain by using quantitative in vitro receptor autoradiography. Brain sections from animals at different stages of development were processed with [3H]AH5183 (vesamicol; vesicular acetylcholine transport sites), [3H]N-methylcarbamylcholine (alpha(4)beta(2) nicotinic receptor sites), [3H]hemicholinium-3 (high-affinity choline uptake sites), [3H]3-quinuclidinyl benzilate (total population of muscarinic receptor sites), [3H]4-DAMP (muscarinic M1/M3 receptor sites), [3H]pirenzepine (muscarinic M1 receptor sites), and [3H]AF-DX 116 and [3H]AF-DX 384 (muscarinic M2 receptor sites) as radiolabeled probes. The results revealed that, by the end of the prenatal period (embryonic day 20), the densities of nicotinic receptor and vesicular acetylcholine transport sites already represented a considerable proportion of those observed in adulthood (postnatal day 60) in different laminae of the frontal, parietal, and occipital cortices, in the layers of Ammon's horn fields and the dentate gyrus of the hippocampal formation, as well as in the amygdaloid body, the olfactory tubercle, and the striatum. In contrast, at that stage, the densities of total muscarinic, M1/M3, M1, and possibly M2 receptor and high-affinity choline uptake sites represent only a small proportion of levels seen in the adult. Differences were also observed in the postnatal ontogenic profiles of nicotinic, muscarinic, vesamicol, and high-affinity choline uptake sites. For example, between postnatal weeks 3 and 5, the levels of M1/M3 and M1 sites were at least as high as in the adult, whereas M2 and high-affinity choline uptake site densities appeared to be delayed and to reach adult values only after postnatal week 5. With regard to cholinergic innervation in the developing rat brain, the present findings suggest a temporal establishment of several components of the cholinergic systems. The first components are the vesicular acetylcholine transporter and nicotinic sites; these are followed by M1/M3 and M1 sites and, finally, by M2 and high-affinity choline uptake sites.