Nerve growth factor (NGF) treatment of primary cultures of embryonic day 17 rat basal forebrain differentially altered activity of choline acetyltransferase (ChAT) and high-affinity choline transport; ChAT specific activity was increased by threefold in neurons grown in the presence of NGF for between 4 and 8 days, whereas high-affinity choline transport activity was not changed relative to control. Dose-response studies revealed that enhancement of neuronal ChAT activity occurred at low concentrations of NGF with an EC50 of 7 ng/ml, with no enhancement of high-affinity choline transport observed at NGF concentrations up to 100 ng/ml. In addition, synthesis of acetylcholine (ACh) and ACh content in neurons grown in the presence of NGF for up to 6 days was increased significantly compared with controls. These results suggest that regulation of ACh synthesis in primary cultures of basal forebrain neurons is not limited by provision of choline by the high-affinity choline transport system and that increased ChAT activity in the presence of NGF without a concomitant increase in high-affinity choline transport is sufficient to increase ACh synthesis. This further suggests that intracellular pools of choline, which do not normally serve as substrate for ACh synthesis, may be made available for ACh synthesis in the presence of NGF.