An endogenous inhibitor (< 3,500 Da) of antagonist binding to the muscarinic acetylcholine receptor has been extracted from Alzheimer's disease (AD) brain with trifluoracetic acid. Oxidized glutathione, (GSSG) has also been found to inhibit antagonist binding to the receptor. However, in its reduced form, glutathione (GSH) like other reducing agents, markedly enhances the inhibitory effect of both GSSG and the endogenous AD inhibitor. EDTA and the free radical scavengers Mn(2+) and Trolox, a vitamin E analog, block the action of the endogenous AD inhibitor but not of GSSG in the presence of GSH. Further, while GSSG inhibition is reversible, the action of the endogenous AD inhibitor is irreversible, consistent with a free radical mechanism. The enhancement of endogenous AD inhibitor activity by GSH suggested that GSH may be involved in formation of the free radical generated by the inhibitor. The glutathione thiyl radical is shown to inhibit antagonist binding to the receptor and is, therefore, a good candidate for the free radical formed by the endogenous AD inhibitor. The ability of Trolox to block the reduction in muscarinic receptor binding caused by the endogenous AD inhibitor is encouraging and suggests that free radical scavengers, such as vitamin E, may have a potential therapeutic role in AD by protecting the integrity of the muscarinic receptor.