By contrast to adult brain, little is known on the development of nicotinic acetylcholine receptor (nAChR) expression. Using a digoxigenin-labeled riboprobe for in situ hybridization, alpha 4 nAChR subunit mRNA expression was studied in embryonic and postnatal rat neocortex and hippocampus where it was transiently increased in neuronal subpopulations and preceded cholinergic fiber ingrowth. alpha 4 expression was increased in neocortical layer VIb between E20 and P2 and, about birth, in dentate gyrus granule cells subsequently decreasing to adult levels. nAChR mRNA expression is increased at the developing neuromuscular endplate preceding cholinergic innervation which triggers changes in non-alpha nAChR isoform expression. It has to be elucidated whether similar changes may occur in the telencephalon.