The Ca2+ permeability of a nicotinic acetylcholine receptor (nAChR) in the rat CNS was determined using both current and fluorescence measurements on medial habenula neurons. The elementary slope conductance of the nAChR channel was 11 pS in pure external Ca2+ (100 mM) and 42 pS in standard solution. Ca2+ influx through nAChRs resulted in the rise of cytosolic Ca2+ concentration ([Ca2+]i) to the micromolar range. This increase was maximal under voltage conditions (below -50 mV) in which Ca2+ influx through voltage-activated channels was minimal. Ca2+ influx through nAChRs directly activated a Ca(2+)-dependent Cl- conductance. In addition, it caused a decrease in the GABAA response that outlasted the rise in [Ca2+]i. These results underscore the physiological significance of Ca2+ influx through nAChR channel in the CNS.