Nicotinic acetylcholine receptor (nAChR) responses of rat medial habenular neurons are potentiated up to 3.5-fold by increasing the concentration of external Ca2+ in the millimolar range. This effect, independent of voltage, is probably due to the binding of Ca2+ to an external site. External Ca2+ decreases nAChR single-channel conductance at negative but not positive potentials, and it markedly enhances the frequency of opening of acetylcholine activated channels. The potentiating effect of Ca2+ is mimicked by Ba2+ and Sr2+, but barely by Mg2+. These data support the existence of positively acting allosteric sites for Ca2+, distinct from those involved in the decrease of single-channel conductance. A model in which external Ca2+ changes the properties of activation of the nAChR appears consistent with these data.