The mammalian prefrontal cortex receives a dense cholinergic innervation from subcortical regions. We previously have shown that cholinergic stimulation of layer V pyramidal neurons of the rat prefrontal cortex results in a depolarization and the appearance of a slow afterdepolarization (sADP). In the current report we examine the mechanism underlying the sADP with the use of sharp microelectrode and whole cell recording techniques in in vitro brain slices. The ability of acetylcholine (ACh) and carbachol to induce the appearance of an sADP in pyramidal cells of layer V of prefrontal cortex is antagonized in a surmountable manner by atropine and is mimicked by application of muscarine or oxotremorine. These results indicate that ACh acts on muscarinic receptors to induce the sADP. In many cell types afterpotentials are triggered by calcium influx into the cell. Therefore we examined the possibility that calcium influx might be the trigger for the generation of the sADP. Consistent with this possibility, buffering intracellular calcium reduced or abolished the sADP but had little effect on the direct muscarinic receptor-induced depolarization also seen in these cells. These results, coupled to the previous observation that calcium channel blockers inhibit the sADP, indicated that the sADP results from a rise in intracellular calcium secondary to calcium influx into the cell. The ionic basis for the current underlying the sADP (IsADP) was examined with the use of ion substitution experiments. The amplitude of IsADP was found to be reduced in a graded fashion by replacement of extracellular sodium with N-methyl-D-glucamine (NMDG). In contrast no clear evidence for the involvement of potassium or chloride channels in the generation of the sADP or IsADP could be found. This result indicated that IsADP is carried by sodium ions flowing into the cell. However, the dependence of IsADP on extracellular sodium was less pronounced than expected for a pure sodium current. We interpret these results to indicate that the sADP is most likely mediated by nonselective cation channels. Examination of the current underlying the sADP at different voltages indicated that this current was also voltage dependent, turning off with hyperpolarization. We conclude that the sADP elicited by muscarinic receptor activation in rat cortex is mediated predominantly by a calcium- and voltage-sensitive nonselective cation current. This current could represent an important mechanism through which ACh can regulate neuronal excitability in prefrontal cortex.