A chicken genomic clone encoding a portion of the neuronal acetylcholine receptor (AChR) alpha 3 subunit was used to identify homologous mRNA in embryonic chick ciliary ganglia. In situ hybridization indicated that the mRNA was neuronal. Northern blot analysis revealed a major hybridizing species of 3.5 kb. Protection experiments confirmed that ganglionic RNA contained material indistinguishable by RNAase digestion from the 300 nucleotide probe used. No transcripts were detected by in situ hybridization or Northern blot analysis for chick neuronal AChR alpha 2 or alpha 4 genes. alpha 3 transcripts were present at all times examined (E6 to 1 year posthatch). Both postganglionic axotomy and preganglionic denervation of ciliary ganglia in newly hatched chicks produced declines in alpha 3 mRNA levels, implying regulation of neuronal AChR mRNA by cell-cell interactions.