Effects of gangliosides GM1 and GQ1b on cholinergic synaptic functions were investigated using synaptosomes prepared from mouse brain cortices. Treatment of synaptosomes with GM1 and GQ1b increased high K(+)-evoked acetylcholine (ACh) release in a bell-shaped dose-dependent manner. The peaks of the effects were found to be at 1-5 microM for GM1 and 5-10 microM for GQ1b. ACh synthesis and the levels of ACh in synaptosomes were not affected by the ganglioside treatment. Both gangliosides enhanced depolarization-induced influx of calcium ions into synaptosomes. These results indicate that GM1 and GQ1b gangliosides increase evoked ACh release by modulating voltage-dependent calcium channels in the synaptic plasma membranes. The effect of GM1 on calcium ion influx remained after repetitive washings, but was almost completely abolished when the bound GM1 was removed by trypsin. This indicates that the fraction of GM1 which was tightly bound to, but not incorporated in synaptic plasma membranes, is responsible for activating the calcium channels.