The nicotinic acetylcholine receptor is a multisubunit, membrane-spanning protein that contains a gated, cation-conducting channel. Our approach to the understanding of the function of this receptor in molecular terms has been to locate its functionally significant sites in the sequences of its subunits and in its three-dimensional structure. In addition, we have tried to correlate transitions in the properties of these sites with functional transitions of the receptor. On binding acetylcholine, the nicotinic acetylcholine receptor enters at least two transient states, the open state and the rapid-onset desensitized state, and, in the continued presence of agonist, finally subsides into the slow-onset desensitized state. The transitions of the receptor between these various states are susceptible to regulation by acetylcholine and its congeners acting at one type of site and by a broad class of noncompetitive inhibitors (NCIs), including local anesthetics, acting at other sites. The chain composition of the receptor is alpha 2 beta gamma delta. The two acetylcholine binding sites are on the alpha chains, and two residues contributing to these sites, Cys-192 and Cys-193, have been identified. Furthermore, these adjacent Cys residues are cross-linked by a disulfide bond. In the quaternary structure of the receptor, the chains appear to be arranged in the order alpha gamma alpha beta delta around a central channel. Both the alpha and beta chains contribute to functionally significant NCI binding sites. The addition to receptor-rich membrane from Torpedo electric tissue of agonists (but not competitive antagonists) renders these NCI sites susceptible to photolabeling by the NCI quinacrine azide (QA). Furthermore, this susceptibility is transient, arising in milliseconds and subsiding in hundreds of milliseconds. These transiently susceptible sites are protected by other NCIs against photolabeling by QA. The time-course of the susceptibility and its dependence on agonist-concentration suggest that it might be the transient, rapid-onset desensitized state of the receptor that is most susceptible to photolabeling by QA.