Two properties were found to distinguish neuronal from muscle nicotinic acetylcholine receptors (nAChRs). First, neuronal nAChRs have a greater Ca2+ permeability. The high Ca2+ flux through neuronal nAChRs activates a Ca(2+)-dependent Cl- conductance, and the Ca2+ to Cs+ permeability ratio (PCa/PCs) is 7 times greater for neuronal than for muscle nAChRs. A second difference between the receptor types is that neuronal nAChRs are potently modulated by physiological levels of external Ca2+. Neuronal nAChR currents are enhanced by external Ca2+ in a dose-dependent manner. The results indicate that changes in extracellular Ca2+ modulate neuronal nAChRs and may modulate cholinergic synapses in the CNS. Also, activation of neuronal nAChRs produces a significant influx of Ca2+ that could be an important intracellular signal.