The effect of therapeutic range ultrasound (1 MHz) on skin permeation of D-mannitol, a highly polar sugar alcohol, inulin, a high molecular weight polysaccharide and physostigmine, a lipophilic anticholinesterase drug was studied in rats and guinea pigs. D-Mannitol and inulin are totally and rapidly excreted, once they have penetrated through the skin into the blood stream, permitting direct in vivo monitoring. For evaluating skin penetration of physostigmine the decrease of whole blood cholinesterase was measured. Ultrasound nearly completely eliminated the lag time usually associated with transdermal delivery of drugs. 3-5 min of ultrasound irradiation (1.5 W/cm2 continuous wave or 3 W/cm2 pulsed wave) increased the transdermal permeation of inulin and mannitol in rats by 5-20-fold within 1-2 h following ultrasound application. Ultrasound treatment also significantly increased (P less than 0.05) the inhibition of cholinesterase during the first hour after application in both physostigmine treated rats and guinea pigs: while in control guinea pigs no significant inhibition of cholinesterase could be detected during the first 2 h after application of physostigmine, the ultrasound treated group showed a 15 +/- 5% (mean +/- SEM) decrease in blood cholinesterase 1 h after ultrasound application. For physostigmine-treated rats the level of cholinesterase inhibition 1 h after ultrasound application was 53 +/- 5% in the ultrasound-treated group and 35 +/- 5% in the controls.