Activation of nicotinic acetylcholine receptors (nAChRs) enhances sensory–cognitive function in human subjects and animal models, yet the neural mechanisms are not fully understood. This review summarizes recent studies on nicotinic regulation of neural processing in the cerebral cortex that point to potential mechanisms underlying enhanced cognitive function. Studies from our laboratory focus on nicotinic regulation of auditory cortex and implications for auditory–cognitive processing, but relevant emerging insights from multiple brain regions are discussed. Although the major contributions of the predominant nAChRs containing α7 (homomeric receptors) or α4 and β2 (heteromeric) subunits are well recognized, recent results point to additional, potentially critical contributions from α2 subunits that are relatively sparse in cortex. Ongoing studies aim to elucidate the specific contributions to cognitive and cortical function of diverse nAChRs.
This review highlights the therapeutic potential of activating nAChRs in the cerebral cortex to enhance cognitive function. Future work also must determine the contributions of relatively rare but important nAChR subtypes, potentially to develop more selective treatments for cognitive deficits.