The mesostriatal dopaminergic system influences locomotor activity and the reinforcing properties of many drugs of abuse including nicotine. Here we investigate the role of the alpha4 nicotinic acetylcholine receptor (nAChR) subunit in mediating the effects of nicotine in the mesolimbic dopamine system in mice lacking the alpha4 subunit. We show that there are two distinct populations of receptors in the substantia nigra and striatum by using autoradiographic labelling with 125I alpha-conotoxin MII. These receptors are comprised of the alpha4, beta2 and alpha6 nAChR subunits and non-alpha4, beta2, and alpha6 nAChR subunits. Non-alpha4 subunit-containing nAChRs are located on dopaminergic neurons, are functional and respond to nicotine as demonstrated by patch clamp recordings. In vivo microdialysis performed in awake, freely moving mice reveal that mutant mice have basal striatal dopamine levels which are twice as high as those observed in wild-type mice. Despite the fact that both wild-type and alpha4 null mutant mice show a similar increase in dopamine release in response to intrastriatal KCl perfusion, a nicotine-elicited increase in dopamine levels is not observed in mutant mice. Locomotor activity experiments show that there is no difference between wild-type and mutant mice in basal activity in both habituated and non-habituated environments. Interestingly, mutant mice sustain an increase in cocaine-elicited locomotor activity longer than wild-type mice. In addition, mutant mice recover from depressant locomotor activity in response to nicotine at a faster rate. Our results indicate that alpha4-containing nAChRs exert a tonic control on striatal basal dopamine release, which is mediated by a heterogeneous population of nAChRs.