The neuropeptide galanin coexists with acetylcholine (ACh) in the basal forebrain cholinergic neurons and modulates cholinergic activity in the forebrain. The cholinergic forebrain neurons appear to play a significant role in learning and memory, as suggested by a severe loss of these neurons in Alzheimer's disease. The involvement of endogenous galanin in learning is demonstrated here by the use of the recently synthesized high-affinity galanin antagonist M35 [galanin(1-13)-bradykinin(2-9) amide] (Kd = 0.1 nM). Intracerebroventricular (i.c.v.) administration of M35 (6 but not 3 nmol) produced a significant (P < 0.025) facilitation of acquisition in a spatial learning test (Morris swim maze) without any increase in swim speed. Thus, M35 (6 nmol) shortened the escape latency, reduced the number of failures to reach the platform, and shortened the path length to reach the hidden platform. M35 (3 and 6 nmol) tended to enhance retention performance seven days after the last training session. Receptor autoradiographic studies on the distribution of [125I]M35 following i.c.v. administration show that it binds preferentially in the periventricular regions including the hippocampus. These results suggest that galanin may modulate spatial learning and memory and that galanin antagonists may provide a new principle in the treatment of Alzheimer's disease.