The thermodynamic parameters deltaGo (standard free energy), deltaHo (standard enthalpy) and deltaSo (standard entropy) of the binding equilibrium of eleven ligands (six agonists and five antagonists) to the neuronal nicotinic receptor were determined by affinity measurements carried out on human thalamus membranes at six different temperatures (0, 10, 20, 25, 30, 35 degrees) and deltaG vs. T plot analysis. Affinity constants were obtained by saturation experiments for [3H]-cytisine, a ganglionic nicotinic agonist, or its displacement in inhibition assays for the other compounds. The deltaG vs T plots appeared to be reasonably linear in the full temperature range for most of the compounds investigated (equilibrium heat capacity change,deltaCo(p) approximately 0), with the exception of the three agonists cytisine, nicotine and methylcarbachol (deltaCo(p) of the order of -720 / -1610 J mol(-1) K(-1)). Thermodynamic parameters were in the range -53.3 < or =deltaHo < or = -28.9 kJ mol(-1) and -41 < or = deltaSo < or = 69 J mol(-1) K(-1) for agonists, and 8.7 < or = deltaHo < or = 68.2 kJ mol(-1) and 99 < or = deltaSo < or = 311 J mol(-1) K(-1) for antagonists, indicating that agonistic binding was both enthalpy- and entropy-driven, while antagonistic binding was totally entropy-driven. Agonists and antagonists were, therefore, thermodynamically discriminated. Experimental results were discussed with particular regard to the following points: 1) reasons why membrane receptors displayed unusually low values of deltaCo(p); 2) possible reasons for the phenomenon of thermodynamic discrimination between agonists and antagonists particularly in connection with ligand-gated ion channel receptors; and 3) the origin of the recurrent phenomenon of enthalpy-entropy compensation which has been observed for neuronal nicotinic receptor ligands as well as for all membrane receptors studied thus far.