The aim of the present study was to investigate sex differences in learning strategies and to elucidate the mechanisms, which may underlie these differences. In two separate experiments, rats were presented with different strategies that could be employed to learn the position of a platform in a water maze (WM); furthermore, rats received treatments that could influence these strategies. In the first experiment, we demonstrated that the response-learning paradigm can be applied to the WM and can be compared with visually cued learning and reversal learning. Naive rats of either sex could acquire this protocol relatively easily. On the probe trial, where the rats are presented with a choice between using response versus visually cued learning, initially response learning was preferred, however, during these experiments, laterality emerged as a significant factor and rats trained to turn right had difficulty in reversing the learned pattern to find the platform. The second part of our study evaluated the effects of nicotine and nitric oxide synthase (NOS) inhibition on the aforementioned parameters. Drug treatments impaired acquisition compared to saline treatments and the effect was more pronounced with NOS inhibition. During the probe trial, while NOS inhibition enhanced the right-side bias in both sexes, nicotine treatment had the same effect only in males. In conclusion, naive rats can acquire place learning using visible cues or reponse learning; however, there is a right side bias in both sexes and the laterality effect is more pronounced in male rats. In drug-treated animals, while NOS inhibition enhances laterality (right bias) in both sexes similarly, nicotine modifies the cognitive strategy in a sexually dimorphic manner by augmenting the right bias only in male rats. (c) 2005 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.