In situ hybridizations and RNase protection assays have been used to characterize nicotinic acetylcholine receptor (nAChR) gene expression in the developing and adult rat retina. At the earliest time examined (embryonic day 13) a low level of alpha-3 and beta-4 gene expression could be detected. During the next 48 hr there was a dramatic induction of the alpha-3, alpha-4, beta-2, beta-3 and beta-4 genes in the recently differentiated retinal ganglion cells. By post-natal day 4 we detected nAChR gene expression in the inner nuclear layer. In the adult retina, in situ hybridizations showed these genes are expressed by cells residing in the ganglion and inner nuclear layers. These results suggest a common regulatory mechanism for the induction of nAChR expression in retinal ganglion cells during development. In addition, the variety of nAChR genes expressed in the retina imply a relatively large number of different types of nAChRs can be expressed by these cells.