The 4 kDa beta-amyloid (A beta) protein, a major component of cerebral and cerebrovascular plaques in Alzheimer's disease (AD), is derived from the proteolytic cleavage of a larger, membrane-bound precursor, the A beta precursor protein (APP). Until recently, it was assumed that an aberrant AD-specific proteolysis generated A beta peptides, which subsequently could initiate and/or contribute to the pathological cascade leading to plaque formation and losses of selected neuronal populations, including basal forebrain cholinergic neurons that provide major inputs to the hippocampus and neocortex. However, the recent detection of soluble A beta fragments in the plasma and CSF of normal individuals, as well as in the conditioned media of cultured brain cells, suggests a role for A beta-related peptides in normal brain functions. Taking into consideration the reported toxic properties of A beta and the preferential vulnerability of basal forebrain cholinergic neurons in AD, we investigated the possible effects of A beta-related peptides on the release of endogenous acetylcholine (ACh) from rat brain slices. A beta 1–28, in a concentration-dependent manner (10(-12)– 10(-8) M), potently inhibited K(+)-evoked ACh release from hippocampal slices. The inhibition of ACh release was fully reversible and was observed using other A beta-related peptides such as A beta 1–42, A beta 1–40, and A beta 25–35, but not with the scrambled, reverse, or all D-isomer A beta-peptide sequences, indicating that the effect of A beta on ACh release is mediated via a stereoselective mechanism. Tetrodotoxin (10 microM) failed to alter the effect of A beta 1–28 on ACh release, which suggests the lack of involvement of voltage- dependent Na+ channels. Except for the hippocampal formation, the inhibitory effect of A beta on K(+)-evoked ACh release also was observed in the frontal cortex but not in the striatum. Taken together, our results demonstrate that APP-derived A beta-related peptides can regulate the release of ACh potently by acting on cholinergic terminals. Additionally, the evidence that selected cholinergic neuronal populations are sensitive to A beta suggests a potential mechanistic link between the deposition of A beta and the preferential vulnerability of certain cholinergic projections in AD.