PURPOSE: The activation and blockade of muscarinic acetylcholine receptors (mAChRs) affects retinal ganglion cell light responses and firing rates. This study was undertaken to identify the full complement of mAChRs expressed in the rabbit retina and to assess mAChR distribution and the functional effects of mAChR activation and blockade on retinal response properties. METHODS: RT-PCR, Western blot analysis, and immunohistochemistry were used to identify the complement and distribution of mAChRs in the rabbit retina. Extracellular electrophysiology was used to determine the effects of the activation or blockade of mAChRs on ganglion cell response properties. RESULTS: RT-PCR of whole neural retina resulted in the amplification of mRNA transcripts for the m1 to m5 mAChR subtypes. Western blot and immunohistochemical analyses confirmed that all five mAChR subtypes were expressed by subpopulations of bipolar, amacrine, and ganglion cells in the rabbit retina, including subsets of cells in cholinergic and glycinergic circuits. Nonspecific muscarinic activation and blockade resulted in the class-specific modulation of maintained ganglion cell firing rates and light responses. CONCLUSIONS: The expression of mAChR subtypes on subsets of bipolar, amacrine, and ganglion cells provides a substrate for both enhancement and suppression of retinal responses via activation by cholinergic agents. Thus, the muscarinic cholinergic system in the retina may contribute to the modulation of complex stimuli. Understanding the distribution and function of mAChRs in the retina has the potential to provide important insights into the visual changes that are caused by decreased ACh in the retinas of Alzheimer's patients and the potential visual effects of anticholinergic treatments for ocular diseases.