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The effects of bilateral ibotenic acid-induced lesions of the nucleus basalis magnocellularis (nBM) on the acquisition and retention of several spatial memory tasks were studied in the rat. Maintenance of spatial memory in a food search task was impaired following nBM lesions. Acquisition of spontaneous alternation and reinforced alternation in a T-maze was also significantly impaired in animals with these lesions. In contrast, the animals with nBM lesions were not impaired in the acquisition of a position habit in a T-maze. In several of the tasks there was evidence of some learning in the lesion animals after substantial training, although they were significantly deficient when compared with the controls. Administration of the cholinergic agonists physostigmine sulfate or pilocarpine nitrate prior to behavioral testing resulted in a rapid and significant improvement in the performance of the lesion animals. The ibotenate-induced lesions significantly reduced the activity of choline acetyltransferase (CAT) in the anterior and the posterior neocortex. Hippocampal CAT activity was not changed. The results indicate that the cholinergic projections originating in the nBM are involved in the learning and memory of spatial tasks.