A 3-chloropropylamine derivative (N-(3-chloropropyl)-4-piperidinyl diphenylactate) of the selective muscarinic antagonist N,N-dimethyl-4-piperidinyl diphenylacetate was synthesized and its conversion to a stable azetidinium ion and interaction with muscarinic receptors was investigated. When dissolved in aqueous solution at pH 7.4, N-(3-chloropropyl)-4-piperidinyl diphenylactate formed a stable azetidinium ion with a half-time of approximately 3.6 hr. The selectivity of the azetidinium ion for native M1, M2 and M3 subtypes of the muscarinic receptors was investigated in competitive binding experiments on the hippocampus, heart and submaxillary gland of rats, respectively, using N-[3H]methylscopolamine as the radioligand. The azetidinium ion exhibited equivalent high affinities for the M1 and M3 mucarinic receptor subtypes (KD = approximately 5 nM), but 10-fold lower affinity for the M2 muscarinic receptor subtype (KD = 44 nM). Similar competitive binding experiments were carried out on Chinese hamster ovary cells transfected with the M1 through M5 subtypes of the muscarinic receptor. In these experiments, the azetidinium ion exhibited similar high affinities for the M1, M3, M4 and M5 muscarinic receptor subtypes (KD = approximately 2.4 nM), but approximately 14-fold lower affinity for the M2 muscarinic receptor subtype (KD = 34 nM). In contrast to the azetidinium ion, the parent N-(3-chloropropyl)-4-piperidinyl diphenylactate compound was 130-fold less potent. An analogous series of experiments were carried out with the aziridinium ion derived from the muscarinic receptor alkylating agent, N-(2-chloroethyl)-4-piperidinyl diphenylactate. For these binding experiments, the incubations were carried out at 0 degrees C to prevent the aziridinium ion from alkylating muscarinic receptors. The aziridinium ion was found to have equivalent high affinities for the M1, M3, M4 and M5 subtypes of the muscarinic receptor (KD = approximately 6.6 nM), but about 11-fold lower affinity for the M2 muscarinic receptor subtype (KD = 72 nM). Our results suggest that 3-haloalkylamine derivatives of 4-piperidinyl diphenylactate may be candidate prodrugs that may penetrate into brain and form azetidinium ions that have a long-lasting central anticholinergic effect.