alpha4beta2 neuronal nicotinic receptors (nAChRs) can exist in high and low sensitivity states possibly due to distinct stoichiometries during subunit assembly: (alpha4)(2)(beta2)(3) pentamer (high sensitivity, HS) and (alpha4)(3)(beta2)(2) pentamer (low sensitivity, LS). To determine if there is a linkage between HS or LS states and receptor-mediated responses in brain, we profiled several clinically studied alpha4beta2* nAChR agonists for the displacement of radioligand binding to alpha4beta2 [(3)H]-cytisine sites in rat brain membranes, effects on stimulation of [(3)H]-dopamine release from slices of rat prefrontal cortex and striatum, and activation of HS and LS human alpha4beta2 nAChRs expressed in Xenopus laevis oocytes. Binding affinities (pK(i)) and potency (pEC(50)) values for [(3)H]-dopamine release closely correlated with a rank order: varenicline>(-)-nicotine>AZD3480>dianicline congruent with ABT-089. Further, a good correlation was observed between [(3)H]-dopamine release and HS alpha4beta2 pEC(50) values, but not between [(3)H]-dopamine release and LS alpha4beta2. The relative efficacies of the agonists ranged from full to partial agonists. Varenicline behaved as a partial agonist in stimulating [(3)H]-dopamine release and activating both HS and LS alpha4beta2 nAChRs expressed in oocytes. Conversely, ABT-089, AZD3480 and dianicline exhibited little efficacy at LS alpha4beta2 (<5%), were more effective at HS alpha4beta2 nAChRs, and in stimulating cortical and striatal [(3)H]-dopamine release >or=30%. In the presence of alpha-conotoxin MII to block alpha6beta2* nAChRs, the alpha4beta2* alpha-conotoxin-insensitive [(3)H]-dopamine release stimulated by these ligands correlates well with their interactions at HS, but not LS. In summary, this study provides support for HS alpha4beta2* nAChR involvement in neurotransmitter release.