Patients with mental illness have a higher incidence of smoking than the general population and are the major consumers of tobacco products. This population includes subjects with schizophrenia, manic depression, depression, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), attention-deficit disorder (ADD), and several other less common diseases. Smoking cessation treatment in this group of patients is difficult, often leading to profound depression. Several recent findings suggest that increased smoking in the mentally ill may have an underlying biological etiology. The mental illness schizophrenia has been most thoroughly studied in this regard. Nicotine administration normalizes several sensory-processing deficits seen in this disease. Animal models of sensory deficits have been used to identify specific nicotinic receptor subunits that are involved in these brain pathways, indicating that the alpha 7 nicotinic receptor subunit may play a role. Genetic linkage in schizophrenic families also supports a role for the alpha 7 subunit with linkage at the alpha 7 locus on chromosome 15. Bipolar disorder has some phenotypes in common with schizophrenia and also exhibits genetic linkage to the alpha 7 locus, suggesting that these two disorders may share a gene defect. The alpha 7 receptor is decreased in expression in schizophrenia. [(3)H]-Nicotine binding studies in postmortem brain indicate that high-affinity nicotinic receptors may also be affected in schizophrenia.