Electrophysiological recordings have been used to characterize responses mediated by AMPA receptors expressed by cultured rat cortical and spinal cord neurones. The EC(50) values for AMPA were 17 and 11 microM, respectively. Responses of cortical neurones to AMPA were inhibited competitively by NBQX (pK(i)=6.6). Lower concentrations of NBQX (< or =1 microM) also potentiated the plateau responses of spinal cord neurones to AMPA, which could be attributed to a depression of desensitization to AMPA. GYKI 52466 inhibited responses of spinal cord neurones to AMPA to about twice the extent of responses of cortical neurones. Blockade of AMPA receptor desensitization by cyclothiazide (CTZ) potentiated responses of spinal cord neurones (6.8 fold) significantly more than responses of cortical neurones (4.8 fold). Responses of cortical neurones to KA were potentiated 3.5 fold by CTZ, while responses of spinal cord neurones were unaffected. Ultra-fast applications of AMPA to outside-out patches showed responses of spinal cord neurones desensitized by 97.5% and exhibit marked inward rectification, whereas cortical neurones desensitized by 91% and exhibited slight outward rectification. The time constants of deactivation and desensitization were about twice as fast in spinal cord than cortical neurones. In cortical neurones, single-cell RT - PCR showed GluR2 and GluR1 accounted for 91% of all subunits and were expressed together in 67% of neurones, predominantly as the flip variants (78%). GluR2 was detected alone in 24% of neurones. GluR3 and GluR4 were present in only 14 and 29% of neurones, respectively. For spinal cord neurones, GluR4(o) was detected in 81% of neurones, whereas predominantly flop versions of GluR1, 2 and 3 were detected in 38, 13 and 13% of neurones, respectively. These expression patterns are related to the respective pharmacological and mechanistic properties.