This experiment examines the impact of the cholinergic input from the basal forebrain on the plasticity of the vibrissa-related somatosensory cortex. Newborn rat pups received intraventricular injections of the cholinergic immunotoxin IgG192-saporin, after bilateral removal of the C-line whisker follicles. Compared with saline-injected control animals, unilateral injections of 0.1 microg IgG192-saporin decreased the number of cholinergic neurons on the toxin injected side by 78% in the basal nucleus of Meynert and the vertical limb of the diagonal band of Broca, 80% in the magnocellular preoptic nucleus and the horizontal limb of the diagonal band of Broca, and 54% in the medial septal nucleus. Neuronal loss contralateral to the toxin was approximately half that on the ipsilateral side. The size of the C and D row barrels were compared from tangential sections through the barrel field. In control animals, D row barrels expanded into C row territory, giving a ratio of areas for D/C barrels of 2.03. Depletion of the cholinergic neurons reduced the expansion of D row barrels and hence decreased the D/C ratio, with a greater reduction on the toxin-treated side (1.43, P <0.005) compared with the contralateral side (1.64, P <0.05). This study implicates the basal forebrain cholinergic projection in somatosensory cortical plasticity.