The network of interstitial cells of Cajal (ICC) at the submucosal surface of the canine colon was selectively stained by incubation with 15-50 microM methylene blue for 30-45 min. The network was composed of regularly scattered ICC cell bodies interconnected by long processes. Circular muscle cells were unstained. Staining of neurons was limited to one or two axons within bundles. The ICC network had a thickness of a single cell, since no overlapping of ICC cell bodies was observed. The ICC network connected the circular muscle cells at the submucosal surface across the septa which circumferentially divided the circular muscle into lamellae. Methylene blue at 50 microM slightly decreased the resting membrane potential and increased the duration of slow waves, leading to an increase in the force of phasic contractions, with no significant influence on other slow-wave parameters. Methylene blue produced neither electrophysiological nor mechanical effects on circular muscle preparations from which the submuscular ICC network was removed, indicating that the excitatory effects of methylene blue on the full-thickness circular muscle layer were mediated by ICC. In summary, the three-dimensional aspects of the submuscular ICC network can be visualized after selective staining by methylene blue. This staining does not affect physiological characteristics of smooth muscle cells.