The in vivo regulation of [3H]acetylcholine [( 3H]ACh) recognition sites on nicotinic receptors in rat brain was examined by administering drugs that increase stimulation of nicotinic cholinergic receptors, either directly or indirectly. After 10 days of treatment with the cholinesterase inhibitor diisopropyl fluorophosphate, [3H]ACh binding in the cortex, thalamus, striatum, and hypothalamus was decreased. Scatchard analyses indicated that the decrease in binding in the cortex was due to a reduction in the apparent density of [3H]ACh recognition sites. In contrast, after repeated administration of nicotine (5-21 days), the number of [3H]ACh recognition sites was increased in the cortex, thalamus, striatum, and hypothalamus. Similar effects were observed in the cortex and thalamus following repeated administration of the nicotinic agonist cytisin. The nicotinic antagonists mecamylamine and dihydro-beta-erythroidine did not alter [3H]ACh binding following 10-14 days of administration. Further, concurrent treatment with these antagonists and nicotine did not prevent the nicotine-induced increase in these binding sites. The data indicate that [3H]ACh recognition sites on nicotinic receptors are subject to up- and down-regulation, and that repeated administration of nicotine results in a signal for up-regulation, probably through protracted desensitization at the recognition site.