Using microdialysis and high-performance liquid chromatography, we measured acetylcholine (ACh) release simultaneously from two cortical sites in anesthetized rats. One site was always in the somatosensory cortex, and the other was in either the visual or the motor cortex. After baseline measurements were obtained, selected sites in the basal forebrain (BF) were stimulated to increase ACh release. Some BF sites provoked more release in one microdialysis probe than in the other, suggesting some degree of corticotropic organization of the cholinergic projections from the BF. BF sites optimal for release from the visual cortex were separated from optimal sites for release from the somatosensory cortex by greater distances than were the best sites for release from the somatosensory and the motor cortex. Stimulation of a single BF site often provoked similar release from the latter two cortical areas. Electrical stimulation of the BF also modified cortical neuronal activity. Activation of some BF sites provoked an intense discharge of many neurons in the vicinity of the cortical recording electrode, and the same stimulus site in the BF provoked release of large amounts of ACh in the cortex. Stimulation of other BF sites produced strong inhibition of ongoing cortical activity and no increase in cortical ACh release. When other sites were stimulated, they had no effect or they generated stereotyped bursting patterns in the cortex without any observable effect on ACh release. BF sites that generated inhibition of cortical neural activity were generally located near the sites that activated the cortex and provoked release of ACh. These data suggest an elaborate control of the sensory cortex by a mechanism involving both gamma-aminobutyric acid-containing and cholinergic neurons of the BF.