Treatment of rats in vivo with NGF promotes the survival and enhances the neurotransmitter phenotype of basal forebrain cholinergic neurons. We showed recently (Williams et al., 1993) that NGF-induced stimulations of the cholinergic markers ChAT and high-affinity choline uptake are reflected in an enhanced synthesis and release of ACh in terminals fields of basal forebrain cholinergic neurons. The objective of the present study was to determine whether such effects translate into an enhancement in neurotransmission between nucleus basalis neurons and postsynaptic target cells, and therefore are likely to be of physiological significance. Changes in cholinergic neurotransmission after NGF were assessed by comparing the ability of cholinergic pathway activation, produced by electrical stimulation of nucleus basalis or the external capsule, to elicit intracellularly recorded muscarinic responses in basolateral amygdaloid (BLA) neurons in ventral forebrain slice preparations from NGF-treated and control Fischer 344 adult rats. Chronic infusion of NGF for 3 weeks (1.2 micrograms/d, i.c.v.) increased the likelihood of eliciting cholinergic slow depolarizations (slow EPSP) via stimulation of cholinergic pathways in the slice. In addition, the frequency-response curves for generation of the cholinergic slow EPSP by nucleus basalis or external capsule stimulation were shifted approximately twofold to the left and the EF50 values significantly reduced in neurons from NGF-treated slices, compared to those in preparations from vehicle-treated or untreated controls. Treatment with NGF also resulted in a leftward shift in the frequency-response curve for cholinergic pathway-induced blockade of the slow afterhyperpolarization, without change in the maximal inhibitory effect. The NGF-induced enhancement in cholinergic synaptic effectiveness was not accompanied by alterations in the resting membrane properties or intrinsic excitability of BLA pyramidal neurons. Nor did treatment with NGF affect their chemosensitivity or responsiveness to direct postsynaptic applications of the cholinergic carbachol. We conclude from these results that chronic administration of exogenous NGF can facilitate neurotransmission within basal forebrain cholinergic projections in normal adult brain, presumably as a consequence of its ability to stimulate presynaptic mechanisms involved in synthesis and/or release of ACh.