1. We have investigated the pharmacological properties of functional nicotinic acetylcholine receptors (nAChRs) on neonatal rat sympathetic neurons from the superior cervical ganglion (SCG) to learn more about the subunit composition of these receptors. These neurons express five nAChR transcripts: alpha 3, alpha 5, alpha 7, beta 2, and beta 4; this finding suggests that SCG neurons may express several different, physiologically distinct, subtypes of nAChRs. 2. To identify potential subtypes, we have characterized currents evoked by different nicotinic agonists and determined their sensitivity to blockade by alpha-bungarotoxin (alpha-BTX) and by neuronal bungarotoxin (n-BTX). From dose-response curves, we find that the ED50 for both cytisine and dimethylphenylpiperazinium (DMPP) is 20 microM and for ACh is 52 microM. n-BTX blocks the ACh-gated currents rapidly, but the kinetics for n-BTX removal is dependent on the duration of the application: brief applications were quickly reversible, whereas prolonged applications took orders of magnitude longer to reverse. 3. Using fast (ms) agonist application, we observed no rapidly desensitizing currents despite the high levels of alpha 7 in these neurons, nor did we observe any currents that could be blocked by alpha-BTX. 4. Using Xenopus oocytes expressing alpha 7 receptors, we show that choline evokes a significant current that is blocked by alpha-BTX. In contrast, choline is much less potent on alpha 3 beta 4 receptors expressed in Xenopus oocytes. Choline can also act as a weak agonist for nAChRs on rat SCG neurons, but its evoked current is not blocked by alpha-BTX. 5. Our results indicate that, when measured at the macroscopic level, most functional nAChRs on SCG neurons behave as a uniform population of receptors, at least with respect to agonist activation and toxin blockade. In comparison with known receptors expressed in heterologous systems, the physiological properties of ACh-evoked currents on SCG neurons are most similar to receptors that have coassembled with both beta 2 and beta 4.