The nicotine metabolite cotinine (1-methyl-5-[3-pyridynl]-2-pyrrolidinone), like its precursor, has been found to exhibit procognitive and neuroprotective effects in some model systems; however, the mechanism of these effects is unknown. In this study, both the R-(+) and S-(-) isomers of cotinine were initially evaluated in an extensive profiling screen and found to be relatively inactive across a wide range of potential pharmacologic targets. Electrophysiological studies on human α4β2 and α7 nicotinic acetylcholine receptors (nAChRs) expressed in Xenopus oocytes confirmed the absence of agonistic activity of cotinine at α4β2 or α7 nAChRs. However, a significant increase in the current evoked by a low concentration of acetylcholine was observed at α7 nAChRs exposed to 1.0 μM R-(+)- or S-(-)-cotinine. Based on these results, we used a spontaneous novel object recognition (NOR) procedure for rodents to test the hypothesis that R-(+)- or S-(-)-cotinine might improve recognition memory when administered alone or in combination with the Alzheimer's disease (AD) therapeutic agent donepezil. Although both isomers enhanced NOR performance when they were coadministered with donepezil, neither isomer was active alone. Moreover, the procognitive effects of the drug combinations were blocked by methyllycaconitine and dihydro-β-erythroidine, indicating that both α7 and α4β2 nAChRs contribute to the response. These results indicate that cotinine may sensitize α7 nAChRs to low levels of acetylcholine (a previously uncharacterized mechanism), and that cotinine could be used as an adjunctive agent to improve the effective dose range of cholinergic compounds (e.g., donepezil) in the treatment of AD and other memory disorders.