Neuronal nicotinic receptors (nAChRs) are a heterogeneous family of ion channels differently expressed in the nervous system where, by responding to the endogenous neurotransmitter acetylcholine, they contribute to a wide range of brain activities and influence a number of physiological functions. Over recent years, the application of newly developed molecular and cellular biological techniques has made it possible to correlate the subunit composition of nAChRs with specific nicotine-elicited behaviours, and refine some of the in vivo physiological functions of nAChR subtypes. The major new findings are the widespread expression of nAChRs, outside the nervous system, their specific and complex organisation, and their relevance to normal brain function. Moreover, the combination of clinical and basic research has better defined the involvement of nAChRs in a growing number of nervous pathologies other than degenerative diseases. However, there are still only a limited number of nicotinic-specific drugs and, although some nicotinic agonists have an interesting pharmacology, their clinical use is limited by undesirable side effects. Some selective nicotinic ligands have recently been developed and used to explore the complexity of nAChR subtype structure and function in the expectation that they will become rational therapeutic alternatives in a number of neurodegenerative, neuropsychiatric and neurological disorders. In this review, we will discuss the molecular basis of brain nAChR structural and functional diversity mainly in pharmacological and biochemical terms, and summarise current knowledge concerning the newly discovered drugs used to classify the numerous receptor subtypes and treat the brain diseases in which nAChRs are involved.