Nicotine is a very widely used drug of abuse, which exerts a number of neurovegetative, behavioural and psychological effects by interacting with neuronal nicotinic acetylcholine receptors (NAChRs). These receptors are distributed widely in human brain and ganglia, and form a family of ACh-gated ion channels of different subtypes, each of which has a specific pharmacology and physiology. As human NAChRs have been implicated in a number of human central nervous system disorders (including the neurodegenerative Alzheimer's disease, schizophrenia and epilepsy), they are suitable potential targets for rational drug therapy. Much of our current knowledge about the structure and function of NAChRs comes from studies carried out in other species, such as rodents and chicks, and information concerning human nicotinic receptors is still incomplete and scattered in the literature. Nevertheless, it is already evident that there are a number of differences in the anatomical distribution, physiology, pharmacology, and expression regulation of certain subtypes between the nicotinic systems of humans and other species. This review will attempt to survey the major achievements reached in the study of the structure and function of NAChRs by examining the molecular basis of their functional diversity viewed mainly from pharmacological and biochemical perspectives. It will also summarize our current knowledge concerning the structure and function of the NAChRs expressed by other species, and the newly discovered drugs used to classify their numerous subtypes. Finally, the role of NAChRs in behaviour and pathology will be considered.