Gastrin-releasing peptide (GRP) stimulates insulin secretion by a direct islet effect. In this study, we initially demonstrated, by immunocytochemistry of the mouse pancreas, GRP immunoreactive nerve fibers within exocrine tissue, islets, and intrapancreatic ganglia. A more pronounced GRP innervation was found in ganglia compared with in islets. We therefore studied whether indirect cholinergic mechanisms contribute to the insulinotropic action of GRP. In mice, the insulinotropic response to GRP (4.25 nmol/kg i.v.) was inhibited by the m3-selective, muscarinic receptor antagonist 4-diphenylacetoxy-N-methyl piperidine methobromide (4-DAMP, 0.21 mol/kg; by 68%, P < 0.05) and by the ganglionic blocker hexamethonium (28 mol/kg; by 98%, P < 0.05). In contrast, in isolated islets, 4-DAMP or hexamethonium (10 or 100 microM) did not inhibit GRP (100 nM)-induced insulin secretion. Furthermore, afferent denervation by neonatal capsaicin did not affect the insulin response to GRP. We conclude that the insulinotropic effect of GRP in the mouse is mediated by both direct islet effects and through activation, at the ganglionic level, of postganglionic cholinergic nerves. In vivo, the indirect cholinergic mechanism predominates.