A new subunit, beta 2, of the neuronal nicotinic receptor family has been identified. This subunit has the structural features of a non-agonist-binding subunit. We provide evidence that beta 2 can substitute for the muscle beta 1 subunit to form a functional nicotinic receptor in Xenopus oocytes. Expression studies performed in oocytes have demonstrated that three different neuronal nicotinic acetylcholine receptors can be formed by the pairwise injection of beta 2 mRNA and each of the neuronal alpha subunit mRNAs. The beta 2 gene is expressed in PC12 cells and in areas of the central nervous system where the alpha 2, alpha 3, and alpha 4 genes are expressed. These results lead us to propose that the nervous system expresses diverse forms of neuronal nicotinic acetylcholine receptors by combining beta 2 subunits with different agonist-binding alpha subunits.