To determine whether prolonged nicotine exposure persistently inactivates rat alpha4beta2 nicotinic receptors expressed in Xenopus oocytes, we measured the voltage-clamped alpha4beta2 response to acetylcholine (ACh) before and 24 h after, 1-h or 12-h incubations in 10 microm nicotine. A 12-h incubation in 10 microm nicotine depressed the alpha4beta2 ACh response for 24 h without affecting total or surface alpha4beta2 expression. To determine whether oocyte-mediated nicotine release caused this depression, we co-incubated an alpha4beta2-expressing oocyte with an un-injected one (pre-incubated in 10 microm nicotine for 12 h) for 24 h and measured the change in the alpha4beta2 ACh response. The response decreased by the same factor after the co-incubation as it did after a 12-h incubation in 10 microm nicotine and a 24-h incubation in nicotine-free media. Thus, oocyte-mediated nicotine release caused the persistent desensitization we observed after a 12-h incubation in 10 microm nicotine. Consistent with this result, measurements of [3H]nicotine release show that oocytes release enough nicotine into the wash media to desensitize alpha4beta2 receptors and that prolonged incubation in 300 microm ACh (which cannot readily cross the membrane or accumulate in acidic vesicles) did not persistently depress the alpha4beta2 response.