Cholinergic neurotransmission plays a significant role in intrinsic cardiac ganglia with the action of acetylcholine being terminated by acetylcholinesterase (AChE, EC 220.127.116.11). Anatomical studies were performed to characterize neurons associated with AChE and a closely related enzyme, butyrylcholinesterase (BuChE, EC 18.104.22.168), in canine intrinsic cardiac ganglia. Histochemical staining for AChE and BuChE in canine right atrial neurons showed that there were four neuronal populations, namely, those that contained AChE only, BuChE only, both AChE and BuChE, and those that did not contain either enzymes. The neuronal activity of intrinsic cardiac neurons in response to substrates and inhibitors of cholinesterases were studied in anesthetized dogs. The activity of intrinsic cardiac neurons, as measured by changes in the number of action potentials, increased by local application of acetylcholine. However, local application of butyrylcholine led to a considerably greater increase in the activity of intrinsic cardiac neurons. In keeping with the neurochemical heterogeneity in intrinsic cardiac ganglia with respect to cholinesterases, the activity generated by most butyrylcholine-sensitive neurons was not influenced by acetylcholine and the activity generated by the most acetylcholine-sensitive neurons was not influenced by butyrylcholine. This suggests that these two agents preferentially influence different populations of intrinsic cardiac neurons. Enzyme kinetic studies demonstrated that canine AChE preferentially catalyzed the hydrolysis of acetylcholine while canine BuChE preferentially catalyzed the hydrolysis of butyrylcholine. Cholinesterase inhibitors Ro 2-1250 and Ro 2-0638 inhibited both canine cholinesterases, while huperzine A preferentially inhibited canine AChE and ethopropazine inhibited canine BuChE. The activity of neurons in the intrinsic cardiac ganglia significantly increased when Ro 2-1250 or Ro 2-0638 was administered locally. The activity of neurons was not affected when huperzine A or ethopropazine was administered, indicating that both cholinesterases must be inhibited to increase neuronal activity. In summary, these data show that in addition to AChE, intrinsic cardiac ganglia also contain distinct populations of neurons that are associated with BuChE, and the activity generated by these neurons is differentially influenced by their substrates. Because simultaneous inhibition of AChE and BuChE leads to increased neuronal activity, it is concluded that AChE- and BuChE-positive intrinsic cardiac neurons may act synergistically to influence the overall tonic activity of intrinsic cardiac ganglia.