Neuronal nicotinic acetylcholine receptors are expressed on a variety of cells in the nervous system where they play key roles in synaptic transmission and information transfer. Little is known, however, about the molecular mechanisms that control their expression, distribution, and function during nervous system development. We have investigated the control of expression during differentiation of one class of acetylcholine receptors that bind alpha-bungarotoxin of human neuroblastoma cells. We report that induction of differentiation of SH-SY5Y, SK-n-SH or IMR-32 cells by the phorbol ester 12-O-tetradecanoyl phorbol 13-myristate (10 nM, TPA) or by retinoic acid resulted in as much as a 70% decline in alpha-bungarotoxin receptors on the cells. The response to the phorbol ester was blocked by the protein kinase C inhibitors staurosporine and bisindolylmaleimide. The decrease in receptors induced by 10 microM retinoic acid was not affected by either agent. However, responses to lower (10 nM) concentrations of retinoic acid were blocked by staurosporine but not bisindolylmaleimide, suggesting a dual mechanism of action for retinoic acid in regulating acetylcholine receptors. It appears that acetylcholine receptors on neuroblastoma cells are regulated during differentiation by both protein kinase C-dependent and -independent mechanisms.