It has been proposed that activation of nicotinic acetylcholine receptors (nAChRs) can activate the prefrontal cortex, enhancing attention and cognition. Nicotine can stimulate the release of several different neurotransmitters in many brain regions. In the present study, we found that stimulation of nAChRs by nicotine or the endogenous agonist, acetylcholine (ACh), induces a large spontaneous increase in glutamate release onto layer V pyramidal neurons of the prefrontal cortex. This release of glutamate, measured by spontaneous excitatory postsynaptic currents (sEPSCs) in the prefrontal cortical slice, depends on intact thalamocortical terminals. It can be suppressed by mu-opioids or eliminated by blocking action potentials. The increase in sEPSCs is sensitive to low concentrations of nicotine, suggesting the involvement of high-affinity (eg alpha(4)beta(2)) nAChRs. Recent work has shown alterations in prefrontal alpha(4)beta(2) nAChRs in autism and schizophrenia, two conditions that are distinguished by abnormal prefrontal cortical activation as well as difficulty in certain aspects of cognition and integrating social and emotional cues. We show that mice lacking the beta(2) nAChR subunit do not show increased sEPSCs with either nicotine or ACh, again implicating high-affinity nicotinic receptors. These findings give new insight into the mechanism by which nicotine affects excitatory neurotransmission to the output neurons of the cerebral cortex in a pathway that is critical for cognitive function and reward expectation.