Regional-specific differences in nicotinic acetylcholine receptors (nAChRs) were examined using the whole-cell patch clamp technique in rat medial habenula (MHb) slices. The majority of cells in the ventral two thirds of the MHb responded robustly to local pressure application of nAChR agonists. Mean agonist potency profiles in the middle and ventral thirds of the MHb were similar: cytisine was the most potent agonist and DMPP the weakest, consistent with a significant contribution of the beta4 subunit to functional nAChRs in all areas of the MHb. In acutely isolated MHb neurons, the alpha3beta4-selective toxin alpha-CTx-AuIB (1 microM) reversibly blocked approximately 75% of the nicotine-induced currents, as expected for cells solely expressing alpha3beta4 nAChRs. However, the alpha3beta2-selective toxin, alpha-CTx-MII (100 nM), blocked a variable fraction (0-90%) of the MHb nicotinic response implying that beta2 subunits may contribute to some functional receptors. We suggest that the effects of alpha-CTx-MII may arise from interaction with alpha3beta2beta4 subunit-containing nAChRs. This idea is supported by the findings (1) that alpha-CTx-MII antagonizes receptors comprised of alpha3, beta2 and beta4 subunits in Xenopus oocytes, and (2) that a mutant alpha-CTx-MII toxin[H12A], which blocks alpha3beta2beta4 receptors but not alpha3beta2 or alpha3beta4 nAChRs, also reduces nicotinic currents in some MHb neurons. Overall these data imply that most functional nAChRs on MHb cells contain at least alpha3 and beta4 subunits, and that a variable subpopulation additionally contains the beta2 subunit.