The substantia nigra (SN) receives afferents from cholinergic neurons of the pedunculopontine tegmental nucleus (PPTg), a neuronal population that shows high levels of nitric oxide synthase (NOS), the enzyme responsible for the synthesis of nitric oxide. We have investigated the effects of the injection in PPTg of two neurotoxins, kainic acid (an excitotoxic neurotoxin), and ethylcholine mustard azirinium ion (AF64A, a non-excitotoxic neurotoxin), upon the SN cells of the rat, by using choline acetyltransferase (ChAT) immunohistochemistry as a marker of cholinergic neurons, and nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide phosphate diaphorase (NADPHd) histochemistry and NOS immunohistochemistry as markers of nitric oxide-producing neurons. Our results show that in normal rats, the SN contains two populations of NOS-positive neurons: large cholinergic neurons of PPTg that invade the caudal region of the SN, and small elongated neurons lying in the SN pars compacta. After ipsilateral PPTg lesion, another population of nigral cells, constituted by medium sized neurons, became NADPHd/NOS-positive. This was much more evident in AF64A-injected rats, in which many medium sized neurons showed enzymatic activity and normal morphological features, at least during the 90 days after injection. Kainic acid-injected rats, in contrast, showed nigral cell degeneration, an effect not found in AF64A material, and only a few NOS-positive neurons. NADPHd/NOS activity was never present in degenerating neurons. These findings suggest that induction of NOS activity is not involved in nigral cell degeneration, and that nitric oxide could have a protective rather than a neurotoxic role. The possible role of nitric oxide in the pathogenesis of Parkinson's disease is discussed.