Neurons have the potential to form thousands of distinct neuronal nicotinic receptors from the eight alpha and three beta subunits that currently are known. In an effort to determine how much of this potential complexity is realized among individual neurons, we examined the nicotinic pharmacological and biophysical properties and receptor subunit mRNA expression patterns in individual neurons cultured from rat epicardial ganglia. Analysis of the whole-cell pharmacology of these neurons showed a diversity of responses to the agonists acetylcholine, nicotine, cytisine, and 1,1-dimethyl-4-phenylpiperazinium, suggesting that a heterogeneous population of nicotinic receptor classes, or subtypes, is expressed by individual neurons. Single-channel analysis demonstrated three distinct conductances (18, 24, and 31 pS), with patches from different neurons containing different combinations of these channel classes. We used single-cell RT-PCR to examine nicotinic acetylcholine receptor (nAChR) subunit mRNA expression by individual neurons. Although mRNAs encoding all eight neuronal nAChR subunits for which we probed (alpha 2-alpha 5, alpha 7, beta 2-beta 4) were present in multicellular cultures, we found that individual epicardial neurons express distinct subsets of these nAChR subunit mRNAs. These results suggest that individual epicardial neurons express distinct arrays of nAChR subunits and that these subunits may assemble into functional receptors with distinct and variable subunit composition. This variable receptor subunit expression provides an explanation for the diversity of pharmacological and single-channel responses we have observed in individual neurons.