Cholinesterase inhibitors are known to potentiate the effects of acetylcholine (ACh) and vagal stimulation on the myocardium. The studies presented here demonstrate that cholinesterase inhibitors (ChEI) also have activity in isolated atria in the absence of extrinsic cholinergic stimulation and that, depending on the ChEI, either indirect stimulation or direct blockade of cardiac muscarinic receptors can occur. Muscarinic agonists inhibit cyclic AMP formation in atria and the ChEIs physostigmine, neostigmine and echothiophate likewise produce a marked attenuation of isoproterenol-stimulated cyclic AMP accumulation The effect of physostigmine appears to result from muscarinic receptor activation by endogenous ACh as it is blocked by atropine. In contrast, the ChEI ambenonium does not stimulate but instead blocks muscarinic receptors coupled to cyclic AMP accumulation. Radioligand binding studies provide direct evidence that both ambenonium and demecarium are relatively potent muscarinic receptor antagonists, whereas physostigmine and other ChEI have little direct receptor activity. Physostigmine and ambenonium also have different effects on heart rate in vivo, the former potentiating and the latter apparently blocking vagal tone. The inhibition of cyclic AMP formation produced by physostigmine can be used as a measure of the concentration of endogenous ACh available at muscarinic receptor sites. Physostigmine blocks cyclic AMP formation in atria incubated in the absence of calcium or in the presence of tetrodotoxin, suggesting that endogenous ACh is spontaneously released in the absence of neuronal activity or depolarization-secretion coupling.