A new type of agonist-binding subunit of rat neuronal nicotinic acetylcholine receptors (nAChRs) was identified. Rat genomic DNA and complementary DNA encoding this subunit (alpha 2) were cloned and analyzed. Complementary DNA expression studies in Xenopus oocytes revealed that the injection of messenger RNAs (mRNAs) for alpha 2 and beta 2 (a neuronal nAChR subunit) led to the generation of a functional nAChR. In contrast to the other known neuronal nAChRs, the receptor produced by the injection of alpha 2 and beta 2 mRNAs was resistant to the alpha-neurotoxin Bgt3.1. In situ hybridization histochemistry showed that alpha 2 mRNA was expressed in a small number of regions, in contrast to the wide distribution of the other known agonist-binding subunits (alpha 3 and alpha 4) mRNAs. These results demonstrate that the alpha 2 subunit differs from other known agonist-binding alpha-subunits of nAChRs in its distribution in the brain and in its pharmacology.