The effect of long-term treatment with atropine, a muscarinic antagonist, known to cause up-regulation of receptor numbers, was examined on the muscarinic-receptor-mediated stimulation of phosphoinositide breakdown in the rat cerebral cortex and hippocampus. Although the numbers of both M1 muscarinic receptors, as measured by [3H]pirenzepine binding, and M1 and M2 receptors increased in both brain regions, the maximal breakdown of myo-[3H]inositol-labelled phosphoinositides was unaltered in the presence of carbachol at a saturating concentration (10(-2) M). In fact the efficacy of carbachol was decreased in slices from atropine-treated cerebral cortex [EC50 (concentration producing half-maximal effect) = 93 microM] as compared with the saline-treated control (EC50 = 23 microM)(P less than 0.005). Similarly the EC50 value (23 microM) in hippocampal slices from saline-treated rats increased in atropine-treated rats to 126 microM (P less than 0.005). This lowered efficacy of muscarinic stimulation could not be explained in terms of residual atropine in the tissue from treated rats. The noradrenaline- or serotonin (5-hydroxytryptamine)-stimulated breakdown or the K+ potentiation of the muscarinic-receptor-stimulated breakdown of [3H]phosphoinositides was not affected by the atropine treatment. Chromatography of the released [3H]inositol phosphates shows that atropine treatment did not cause any qualitative change in the pattern of [3H]inositol phosphates released by carbachol stimulation.