Protons cause a sustained depolarization of human dorsal root ganglion (DRG) neurons [Baumann et al. (1996) Pain, 65, 31-38]. In the present study we sought to determine which ion channels are expressed in human DRG neurons that could mediate the sustained responses observed in the patch-clamp recordings. RT-PCR of material from the DRG tissue revealed the presence of mRNAs for a nonselective cation channel that is activated by protons (TRPV1) and background potassium channels that are blocked by protons (TASK-1, TASK-3 and Kir2.3). Highly acidic solution (pH 5.4) applied to cultured DRG neurons evoked prolonged currents that were associated with a net increase in membrane conductance. Consistent with the involvement of TRPV1, these proton-evoked currents were blocked by capsazepine and were only found in neurons that responded to capsaicin with an increase in membrane conductance. Less acidic extracellular solution (pH 6.0) evoked such currents only rarely, but was able to strongly enhance the currents evoked by capsaicin. Capsazepine (1 microm) blocked the currents evoked by capsaicin at pH 7.35, as well as the potentiated responses to capsaicin at pH 6.0. In neurons that were not excited by capsaicin, moderate extracellular acidification (pH 6.0) caused a sustained decrease in resting membrane conductance. The decrease in membrane conductance by protons was associated with inhibition of background potassium channels. This excitatory effect of protons was not blocked by capsazepine. We conclude that in most neurons the sustained depolarization in response to moderately acidic solutions is the result of blocked background potassium channels. In a subset of neurons, TRPV1 also contributes.