The electrophysiological properties, the response to cholinergic agonists and the morphological characteristics of neurons of the basolateral complex were investigated in rat amygdala slices. We have defined three types of cells according to the morphological characteristics and the response to depolarizing pulses. Sixty-six of the recorded cells (71%) responded with two to three action potentials, the second onwards having less amplitude and longer duration (burst). In a second group, consisting of 21 cells (22%), the response to depolarization was a train of spikes, all with the same amplitude (multiple spike). Finally, seven neurons (7%) showed a single action potential (single spike). Burst response and multiple-spike neurons respond to the cholinergic agonist carbachol (10-20 microM) with a depolarization that usually attained the level of firing. This effect was accompanied by decreased or unchanged input membrane resistance and was blocked by atropine (1.5 microM). The depolarizing response to superfusion with carbachol occurred even when synaptic transmission was blocked by tetrodotoxin, indicating a direct effect of carbachol. Similarly, the depolarization by carbachol was still present when the M-type conductance was blocked by 2 mM Ba2+. The carbachol-induced depolarization was prevented by superfusion with tetraethylammonium (5 mM). Injection of biocytin into some of the recorded cells and subsequent morphological reconstruction showed that "burst" cells have piriform or oval cell bodies with four or five main dendritic trunks; spines are sparse or absent on primary dendrites but abundant on secondary and tertiary dendrites. This cellular type corresponds to a pyramidal morphology. The "multiple-spike" neurons have oval or fusiform somata with four or five thick primary dendritic trunks that leave the soma in opposite directions; they have spiny secondary and tertiary dendrites. Finally, neurons which discharge with a "single spike" to depolarizing pulses are round with four or five densely spiny dendrites, affording these neurons a mossy appearance. The results indicate that most of the amygdaloid neurons respond to carbachol with a depolarization. This effect was concomitant with either decrease or no change in the membrane input resistance and was not blocked by the addition of Ba2+, an M-current blocker, indicating that a conductance pathway other than K+ is involved in the response to carbachol.