Preincubation with receptor agonists or phorbol esters desensitized muscarinic-receptor-mediated [3H]cyclic GMP responses in mouse neuroblastoma N1E-115 cells. However, desensitization mediated by phorbol esters was heterologous, whereas that effected by receptor agonist was specific towards the muscarinic receptors. In addition, there was no loss of cell surface muscarinic receptors, as measured by the binding of the hydrophilic ligand [3H]N-methylscopolamine, when cells were treated with phorbol esters, but receptor-agonist-induced desensitization was accompanied by a decrease in cell surface receptor density. We examined the role of protein kinase C (PKC) in the desensitization of muscarinic receptors by employing a kinase inhibitor and by down-regulation of PKC by long-term incubation of cells with phorbol esters. Whereas these manoeuvres had marked effects on phorbol-ester-induced desensitization of muscarinic responses, they did not block agonist-induced down-regulation and desensitization of muscarinic receptors. In addition, when phosphoinositide hydrolysis was suppressed, the muscarinic agonist was still capable of mediating receptor sequestration and desensitization. These results suggest that the mechanisms for regulating muscarinic receptor sensitivity could be both PKC-dependent and PKC-independent, being mediated by phorbol esters and receptor agonists respectively.