Muscarinic acetylcholine signalling plays major roles in regulation of consciousness, cognitive functioning, pain perception and circulatory homeostasis. Halothane has been shown to inhibit m1 muscarinic signalling. However, no comparative data are available for desflurane, sevoflurane or isoflurane, nor have the anaesthetic effects on the m3 subtype (which is also prominent in the brain) been studied. Therefore, we have investigated the effects of these compounds on isolated m1 and m3 muscarinic receptor function. Defolliculated Xenopus oocytes expressing recombinant m1 or m3 muscarinic or (for comparison) AT1A angiotensin II receptors were voltage clamped, and Ca(2+)-activated Cl- currents (ICl(Ca)) induced by acetyl-beta-methylcholine (Mch) or angiotensin II were measured in the presence of clinically relevant concentrations of halothane, sevoflurane, desflurane or isoflurane. To determine the site of action of the volatile anaesthetics we compared anaesthetic effects on m1, m3 and AT1A receptor function and studied the effects of volatile anaesthetics on signalling induced by intracellular injection of the second messenger IP3. Desflurane had a biphasic effect on m1 signalling, enhancing at a concentration of 0.46 mmol litre-1 but depressing at 0.92 mmol litre-1. A similar, although not significant, trend was observed with m3 signalling. Isoflurane had no effect on m1 signalling, but profoundly inhibited m3 signalling. Sevoflurane depressed the function of m1 and m3 signalling in a dose-dependent manner. Halothane, similar to its known effect on m1 signalling, dose-dependently depressed m3 function. ICl(Ca) induced by intracellular injections of IP3 were unaffected by all four anaesthetics. Similarly, none of the anaesthetics tested affected AT1A signalling. Absence of interference with AT1A signalling and intracellular pathways suggest that the effects of anaesthetics on muscarinic signalling most likely result from interactions with the m1 or m3 receptor molecule. Multiple interaction sites with different affinities may explain the biphasic response to desflurane. Anaesthetic-specific effects on closely related receptor subtypes suggest defined sites of action for volatile anaesthetics on the receptor protein.