Neuronal bungarotoxin (NBT), a snake venom neurotoxin, selectively blocks nicotinic receptors in many peripheral and central neuronal preparations. alpha-Bungarotoxin (alpha BT), on the other hand, a second toxin isolated from the venom of the same snake, is an ineffective nicotinic antagonist in most vertebrate neuronal preparations studied thus far. To examine central nicotinic receptors recognized by NBT, we have characterized the binding of 125I-labeled NBT (125I-NBT) to rat brain membranes and have mapped the distribution of 125I-NBT binding in brain sections using quantitative light microscopic autoradiography. The binding of 125I-NBT was found to be saturable, of high affinity, and heterogeneously distributed in the brain. Pharmacological studies suggested that more than one population of sites is labeled by 125I-NBT. For example, one component of 125I-NBT binding was also recognized by alpha BT, while a second component, not recognized by alpha BT, was recognized by the nicotinic agonist nicotine. The highest densities of these alpha BT-insensitive, nicotine- sensitive sites were found in the fasciculus retroflexus, the lateral geniculate nucleus, the medial terminal nucleus of the accessory optic tract, and the olivary pretectal nucleus. alpha BT-sensitive NBT binding sites were found in highest density in the lateral geniculate nucleus, the subthalamic nucleus, the dorsal tegmental nucleus, and the medial mammillary nucleus (lateral part). The number of brain regions with a high density of 125I-NBT binding sites, blocked either by alpha BT or by nicotine, is low when compared with results obtained using other approaches to studying the central distribution of nicotinic receptors, such as labeling with 3H-nicotine or labeling with cDNA probes to mRNAs coding for putative receptor subunits. It is proposed that 125I-NBT labels a subpopulation of nicotinic receptors in the rat brain, and that, given its ability to block nicotinic receptors in a variety of neuronal preparations, NBT will be a useful probe for studying the functional properties of these sites.