Traditional descriptions of the basal forebrain cholinergic projection system to the cortex have focused on neuromodulatory influences, that is, mechanisms that modulate cortical information processing but are not necessary for mediating discrete behavioral responses and cognitive operations. This review summarises and conceptualises the evidence in support of more deterministic contributions of cholinergic projections to cortical information processing. Through presynaptic receptors expressed on cholinergic terminals, thalamocortical and corticocortical projections can evoke brief cholinergic release events. These acetylcholine (ACh) release events occur on a fast, sub-second to seconds-long time scale (‘transients’). In rats performing a task requiring the detection of cues as well as the report of non-cue events cholinergic transients mediate the detection of cues specifically in trials that involve a shift from a state of monitoring for cues to cue-directed responding. Accordingly, ill-timed cholinergic transients, generated using optogenetic methods, force false detections in trials without cues. We propose that the evidence is consistent with the hypothesis that cholinergic transients reduce detection uncertainty in such trials. Furthermore, the evidence on the functions of the neuromodulatory component of cholinergic neurotransmission suggests that higher levels of neuromodulation favor staying-on-task over alternative action. In other terms, higher cholinergic neuromodulation reduces opportunity costs. Evidence indicating a similar integration of other ascending projection systems, including noradrenergic and serotonergic systems, into cortical circuitry remains sparse, largely because of the limited information about local presynaptic regulation and the limitations of current techniques in measuring fast and transient neurotransmitter release events in these systems.