We have shown previously that chronic exposure to submicromolar concentrations of nicotine permanently inactivates alpha4beta2 and alpha7 neuronal nicotinic acetylcholine receptors while alpha3beta2 acetylcholine receptors are resistant to inactivation. Phosphorylation of the large cytoplasmic domain has been proposed to mediate functional inactivation. Chimeric subunits consisting of human alpha4 sequence from their N-terminus to either the beginning of the first transmembrane domain or the large cytoplasmic domain and alpha3 sequences thereafter formed acetylcholine receptors with beta2 subunits which were as susceptible to nicotine-induced inactivation as wild-type alpha4 acetylcholine receptors. The converse chimeras, containing the N-terminal parts of the alpha3 subunit and the C-terminal parts of the alpha4 subunit, formed acetylcholine receptors with beta2 subunits which were as resistant to nicotine-induced inactivation as wild-type alpha3beta2 acetylcholine receptors. Thus, inactivation of acetylcholine receptors produced by chronic exposure to nicotine results primarily from effects of the agonist on the extracellular and transmembrane domains of the alpha subunit.