Molecular cloning has elucidated the sequence of a family of acetylcholine receptor subunits that are activated by nicotine. Subsequent studies on the localization of individual subunits and the physiological properties of nicotinic subunit combinations in vitro, have led to identification of subunit compositions of nicotinic receptors that may function in vivo, as the native receptor. A particular challenge for the field has been to use these molecular data to determine which individual nicotinic receptor subtype is responsible for mediating each of the behavioral effects of nicotine. Human and animal studies have shown that nicotine is reinforcing and likely responsible for the addictive properties of tobacco. In addition, nicotine has been shown to have effects on locomotion, cognition, affect, and pain sensitivity. Recent studies combining the techniques of molecular biology, pharmacology, electrophysiology, and behavioral analysis to analyze knock out mice that lack individual subunits of the nicotinic acetylcholine receptor, have helped identify the role of specific nicotinic subunits in some of these complex behaviors. These studies could ultimately be useful in designing specific nicotinic receptor agonists and antagonists that may have uses in the clinic.