Choline acetyltransferase (CAT) activity increased 11-fold in co-cultures of spinal cord and muscle cells from fetal mice relative to cultures of spinal cord cells alone. The addition of transforming growth factor-beta (TGF-beta) to the medium at 30 pM throughout the culture period inhibited the increase of CAT activity in the co-cultures, but did not affect the activity in cultures of spinal cord cells alone. TGF-beta did not inhibit glutamic acid decarboxylase activity in the co-cultures. Other growth factors such as epidermal growth factor, fibroblast growth factor and beta-NGF had little or no effect on CAT activity. TGF-beta markedly inhibited the fusion of myoblasts to myotubes and the expression of marker enzymes for muscle differentiation. When TGF-beta was included during muscle culture and removed before inoculation with spinal cord cells, myoblasts did not subsequently form myotubes. CAT activity in the spinal cord cells, however, markedly increased in co-cultures with the undifferentiated myoblasts. When TGF-beta was added to the co-cultures after myotube formation was complete, the increase in CAT activity was inhibited according to the length of TGF-beta treatment. These results suggest that TGF-beta inhibits the muscle-induced stimulation of CAT activity by inhibiting the production, secretion and/or action of trophic factors from muscle.