The difference between infrared spectra of the nicotinic acetylcholine receptor (nAChR) recorded using the attenuated total reflectance technique in the presence and absence of carbamylcholine exhibits a complex pattern of positive and negative bands that provides a spectral map of the structural changes that occur in the nAChR upon agonist binding and subsequent desensitization. Two relatively intense bands are observed in the amide I region of the difference spectra recorded in 1H2O buffer near 1655 cm(-1) and 1620 cm(-1) that were previously interpreted in terms of either a net conversion of beta-sheet to alpha-helix or a reorientation of transmembrane alpha-helix accompanied by a change in structure of beta-sheet and/or turn [Baenziger, J. E., Miller, K. W., & Rothschild, K. J. (1993) Biochemistry 32, 5448-5454]. However, difference spectra recorded in 2H2O buffer reveal that these and other difference bands in the amide I region undergo downshifts in frequency upon peptide 1H/2H exchange that are much larger than the downshifts in frequency that are typically observed for the amide I vibrations of either alpha-helix or beta-sheet. Difference spectra recorded in 2H2O buffer within either minutes or hours of prior exposure of the nAChR to 2H2O exhibit the same amide I difference band shifts that are observed in difference spectra recorded after 3 days prior exposure of the nAChR to 2H2O. Most of the peptides that are involved in both ligand binding and the resting to desensitized conformational change and that give rise to bands in the difference spectra therefore exchange their hydrogens for deuterium on the seconds to minutes time scale. The frequencies of the difference bands, the magnitudes of the difference band shifts upon peptide 1H/2H exchange, and the rapidity of the hydrogen deuterium exchange kinetics of those structures that give rise to amide I bands in the difference spectra all suggest that the formation of a channel-inactive desensitized state results predominantly from a conformational change in solvent-accessible extramembranous regions of the polypeptide backbone as opposed to a large structural perturbation near the ion channel gate. A conformational change in the agonist binding site may be primarily responsible for channel inactivation upon desensitization.