Nicotinic acetylcholine receptors (nAChR) exert pivotal roles in synaptic transmission, neuroprotection and differentiation. Particularly, homomeric alpha7 receptors participate in neurite outgrowth, presynaptic control of neurotransmitter release and Ca2+ influx. However, the study of recombinant alpha7 nAChRs in transfected cell lines is difficult due to low expression of functional receptor channels. We show that PC12 pheochromocytoma cells induced to differentiation into neurons are an adequate model for studying differential nAChR gene expression and receptor activity. Whole-cell current recording indicated that receptor responses increased during the course of differentiation. Transcription of mRNAs coding for alpha3, alpha5, alpha7, beta2 and beta4 subunits was present during the course of differentiation, while mRNAs coding for alpha2, alpha4 and beta3 subunits were not expressed in PC12 cells. alpha7 subunit expression was highest following 1 day of induction to differentiation. Activity of alpha7 nAChRs, however, was most elevated on day 2 as revealed by inhibition experiments in the presence of 10 nM methyllycaconitine, rapid current decay and receptor responsiveness to the alpha7 agonist choline. Increased alpha7 receptor activity was noted when PC12 were induced to differentiation in the presence of choline, confirming that chronic agonist treatment augments nAChR activity. In summary, PC12 cells are an adequate model to study the role and pharmacological properties of this receptor during neuronal differentiation.