Acetylcholine is synthesized and released by human epidermal keratinocytes and modulates the adhesion and motility of these cells. To understand the molecular basis of the effects of acetylcholine on keratinocytes, we investigated the presence, pharmacology, structure, and function of nicotinic acetylcholine receptors in human epidermal keratinocytes. Patch-clamp studies indicated that keratinocytes express acetylcholine receptors with ion gating and pharmacologic properties similar to those observed so far only in neurons, and containing the alpha 3 subunit. Specific binding of the receptor-specific ligand 125I-kappa-bungarotoxin revealed approximately 5500 binding sites per cell on undifferentiated keratinocytes in cell cultures and approximately 35,400 binding sites per cell on mature keratinocytes freshly isolated from human neonatal foreskins. Antibody binding and polymerase chain reaction experiments demonstrated the presence of alpha 3, beta 2, and beta 4 nicotinic receptor subunits. Binding of subunit-specific antibodies indicated that nicotinic receptors were associated with the suprabasal keratinocytes in epidermis and localized to the cell membranes of differentiated keratinocytes in cell cultures. Acetylcholine and the nicotinic agonist nicotine increased cell-substrate and cell-cell adherence of cultured keratinocytes and stimulated their lateral migration. The specific antagonists kappa-bungarotoxin and mecamylamine caused cell detachment and abolished migration. Thus, a nicotinic receptor expressed in keratinocytes may mediate acetylcholine control of keratinocyte adhesion and motility.