Many single-channel studies rely on the assumption that the channels are functioning under steady-state conditions. In examining the basis for nonlinear whole-cell current-voltage curves in Mg(2+)-free solutions we discovered that N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) channels in excised patches reversibly shifted their open-state probability (Po) in a voltage-dependent way, exhibiting approximately 3- to 4-fold greater Po at positive potentials than at rest. Changes in Po were mainly attributable to shifts in frequency of channel opening. Po changed remarkably slowly (2-15 min), explaining the hysteresis of whole-cell current-voltage curves obtained in nonequilibrium conditions. The slow increase in Po provides a mechanism by which NMDA channels can substantially increase Ca2+ influx in cells depolarized for prolonged periods of time and may play a role in excitotoxicity.