Trigeminal mesencephalic nucleus (MNV) neurones express functional P2X receptors. In order to determine the molecular identity of the P2X receptors in this nucleus we have used whole cell patch clamp recording of P2X receptor-mediated currents to determine the pharmacological properties of the receptors, and have compared them with those of cloned P2X receptor subunits. The purine nucleotides ATP (300 microM), ATP-gamma-S (30 microM) and alphabetameATP (300 microM) evoked inward currents in all MNV neurones whereas alphabetameADP (300 microM) did not. betagammame-L-ATP (300 microM) evoked only a small ( approximately 20 pA) current in 3 out of 6 MNV neurones. The P2X receptor antagonist TNP-ATP (10 nM-10 microM) and raised extracellular Ca(2+) (8 and 30 mM) reduced, but did not abolish, the current evoked by ATP-gamma-S. The current remaining in TNP-ATP was insensitive to blockade by raised Ca(2+). These properties suggest that MNV neurones do not express homomeric P2X(3), P2X(4) or P2X(6) receptors. Whilst the TNP-ATP-insensitive ATP-gamma-S-evoked current has many characteristics similar to both homomeric P2X(2) and P2X(5) receptors, its insensitivity to blockade by raised Ca(2+) is difficult to reconcile with the receptor being a P2X(2) or P2X(5) homomeric channel. More likely, the receptor is a heteromer that comprises either or both of these subunits. The TNP-ATP-sensitive component of the ATP-gamma-S-evoked current is dissimilar to known cloned homomeric or heteromeric P2X receptors.