The effect of heptanol on electrical coupling between submucosal circular muscle cells of the dog colon and consequences for slow-wave activity were investigated. Electrotonic potentials showed exponential decay giving a length constant of 2.6 +/- 0.5 mm and a time constant of 157 +/- 48 ms. Heptanol reversibly abolished electrotonic current spread, and subsequently no slow-wave activity was recorded. The length constant decreased to less than 0.2 mm. The input resistance increased from 3 to 36 M omega, suggesting a change from tissue syncytium to electrically isolated cells. D600 (5 X 10(-6) M) also abolished slow wave activity but had opposite effects on electrotonic current spread. The data are consistent with the hypothesis that heptanol reversibly inhibits intercellular coupling, resulting in loss of spread of extracellularly applied current, uncoupling of cells, and loss of pacemaker activity. Regulation of intercellular communication may be important in the control of intestinal motility.