The hippocampus receives cholinergic afferents and expresses neuronal nicotinic acetylcholine receptors. In particular, the alpha7 and beta2 nicotinic subunits are highly expressed in the hippocampus. There has been controversy about the location, distribution and roles of neuronal nicotinic acetylcholine receptors [Role L. W. and Berg D. K. (1996) Neuron 16, 1077-1085; Wonnacott S. (1997) Trends Neurosci. 20, 92-98]. Using immunocytochemistry and patch-clamp techniques, we examined the density and distribution of nicotinic receptors on rat hippocampal neurons in primary tissue culture. The density and distribution of alpha7 subunits change with days in culture. Before 10 days in culture, alpha7 expression, monitored immunocytochemically, is low and nicotinic currents are small or absent. In older cultures, about two-thirds of the neurons express nicotinic currents, and alpha7 appears in small patches on the soma and out along the neuronal processes. These patches of alpha7 subunits on the surface of the neuronal processes often co-localize with the presynaptic marker, synaptotagmin. The other most common nicotinic subunit, beta2, stays confined mainly to the soma and proximal processes, and beta2 is distributed more uniformly and is not specifically localized at presynaptic areas. The two subunits, alpha7 and beta2, have different expression patterns on the surface of the cultured hippocampal neurons. Taken together with previous physiological studies, the results indicate that alpha7 subunits can be found at presynaptic terminals, and at these locations, these calcium-permeable channels may influence transmitter release.