1. The effects of histamine and agents at histamine receptors on spontaneous and 100 mM K(+)-evoked release of acetylcholine, measured by microdialysis from the cortex of freely moving, rats, and on cognitive tests are described. 2. Local administration of histamine (0.1-100 microM) failed to affect spontaneous but inhibited 100 mM K(+)-stimulated release of acetylcholine up to about 50%. The H3 receptor agonists (R)-alpha-methylhistamine (RAMH) (0.1-10 microM), imetit (0.01-10 microM) and immepip (0.01-10 microM) mimicked the effect of histamine. 3. Neither 2-thiazolylethylamine (TEA), an agonist showing some selectivity for H1 receptors, nor the H2 receptor agonist, dimaprit, modified 100 mM K(+)-evoked release of acetylcholine. 4. The inhibitory effect of 100 microM histamine was completely prevented by the highly selective histamine H3 receptor antagonist, clobenpropit but was resistant to antagonism by triprolidine and cimetidine, antagonists at histamine H1 and H2 but not H3 receptors. 5. The H3 receptor-induced inhibition of K(+)-evoked release of acetylcholine was fully sensitive to tetrodotoxin (TTX). 6. The effects of intraperitoneal (i.p.) injection of imetit (5 mg kg-1) and RAMH (5 mg kg-1) were tested on acetylcholine release and short term memory paradigms. Both drugs reduced 100 mM K(+)-evoked release of cortical acetylcholine, and impaired object recognition and a passive avoidance response. 7. These observations provide the first evidence of a regulatory role of histamine H3 receptors on cortical acetylcholine release in vivo. Moreover, they suggest a role for histamine in learning and memory and may have implications for the treatment of degenerative disorders associated with impaired cholinergic function.