Maternal cigarette smoking during pregnancy has been shown to be a major risk factor for the sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). We hypothesized that SIDS is associated with altered 3H-nicotine binding to nicotinic receptors in brainstem nuclei related to cardiorespiratory control and/or arousal. We analyzed 3H-nicotine binding in 14 regions in SIDS and control brainstems using quantitative tissue receptor autoradiography. Three groups were analyzed: SIDS (n = 42), acute controls (n = 15), and a chronic group with oxygenation disorders (n = 18). The arcuate nucleus, postulated to be important in cardiorespiratory control and abnormal in at least some SIDS victims, contained binding below the assay detection limits in all (SIDS and control) cases. We found no significant differences among the 3 groups in mean 3H-nicotine binding in the 14 brainstem sites analyzed. When a subset of the cases were stratified by the history of the presence or absence of maternal cigarette smoking during pregnancy, however, we found that there was no expected increase (upregulation) of nicotinic receptor binding in SIDS cases exposed to cigarette smoke in utero in 3 nuclei related to arousal or cardiorespiratory control. This finding raises the possibility that altered development of nicotinic receptors in brainstem cardiorespiratory and/or arousal circuits put at least some infants, i.e. those exposed to cigarette smoke in utero, at risk for SIDS, and underscores the need for further research into brainstem nicotinic receptors in SIDS in which detailed correlations with smoking history can be made.