Knockout mice, in which one or more genes of interest are silenced, provide unique opportunities to analyse diverse aspects of gene function in vivo. In particular, the contribution of the encoded protein(s) in complex behaviours can be assessed. Since the first targeted disruption in 1995 of the gene encoding the beta2-subunit of the nicotinic acetylcholine receptor (nAChR), all but a few of the mammalian nAChR subunits have been disrupted (i.e. alpha7, alpha4, alpha3, alpha9, beta4 and beta3). Recent advances brought by genetically modified mice to our understanding of the endogenous composition and role of nAChRs in the nervous system, and of the diverse pharmacological actions of nicotine regarding learning, analgesia, reinforcement, development and aging in the brain will be discussed.