Responses of the human alpha 7 nicotinic acetylcholine receptor (nAChR) in Xenopus laevis oocytes were quantified using two-electrode voltage clamp in the presence of barium (10 mM) to block secondary activation of Ca(2+)-dependent chloride currents. The effect of (S)-3-methyl-5-(1-methyl-2-pyrrolidinyl) isoxazole (ABT-418) and (2,4)-dimethoxybenzylidene anabaseine (GTS-21), two potential compounds for the treatment of Alzheimer's Disease, and of the natural product (+/-)epibatidine were compared to (-)nicotine. (+/-)Epibatidine acted as an agonist and was 64-fold more potent than (-) nicotine (EC50s = 1.30 +/- 0.11 microM and 83 +/- 10 microM, respectively). ABT-418 also was an agonist, 3-fold less potent and 75% as efficacious as (-)nicotine (EC50 = 264 +/- 34 microM). GTS-21, in contrast, inhibited the response to (-)nicotine at concentrations < or = 10 microM and itself elicited only a small response at higher concentrations (12% of the (-)nicotine response at 1 mM). Reversible blockade by methyllycaconitine (10 nM) corroborated the responses as due to activation of alpha 7 nAChR. This represents the first characterization of human alpha 7 nAChR responses to these novel nicotinic agonists.