Pituitary cells were cultured as three-dimensional reaggregates in serum-free chemically defined medium supplemented with different concentrations of dexamethasone. Immunostaining of the cells using a polyclonal antiserum and three monoclonal antibodies raised against choline acetyl transferase (CAT), revealed the presence of CAT immunoreactivity in 4-10% of anterior pituitary cells depending on the antibody used. CAT immunoreactivity was also found in freshly dispersed anterior pituitary cells. CAT-immunoreactive cells could be enriched on BSA and Percoll gradients and codistributed with ACTH-immunoreactive cells in these gradients. Perifusion of the aggregates with the potent muscarinic receptor antagonist atropine (Atr) resulted in a dose-dependent (0.1-100 nM) increase in both basal PRL and GH secretion; the response was dependent on the dexamethasone concentration in the culture medium. A similar response to Atr was observed in organ-cultured pituitaries. The specificity of the Atr effect was supported by the findings that the potent and highly specific muscarinic receptor blocker dexetimide showed a similar action, whereas its inactive enantiomer levetimide and the nicotinic receptor blocker hexamethonium failed to do so. Two other muscarinic antagonists, benzatropine and pirenzepine, showed a dose-dependent hormone-releasing action similar to that of Atr, but were less potent than the latter. Pirenzepine was only effective at high molar concentrations, suggesting that an M2 muscarinic receptor subtype was mediating the present phenomenon. Atr also potentiated GH release stimulated by the beta-adrenergic agonist isoproterenol and PRL release stimulated by vasoactive intestinal peptide, but had no effect on GRF-stimulated GH release. The choline uptake blocker hemicholinium abolished the effect of Atr on GH and PRL release. These data suggest that certain pituitary cells can express CAT activity and that these cells exert a tonic inhibitory activity on GH and PRL release which is mediated by a cholinomimetic substance, possibly acetylcholine, through a muscarinic receptor.