AMPA but not kainate produces a rapidly desensitizing response in mouse hippocampal neurons. The characteristic action of these agonists appears to arise from activation of a single receptor with active and desensitized states, for which AMPA and kainate have different relative affinity. The equilibrium potency of a series of five agonists that produce rapidly desensitizing responses at non-NMDA receptors (EC50 1 microM to 4 mM) was similar to their equilibrium potency for block of kainate responses. Increasing the concentration of kainate overcame such block, but in the presence of AMPA the rate of activation of responses to kainate was slowed. Conversely, in the presence of kainate the amplitude of rapidly desensitizing responses evoked by AMPA was reduced, and the rate of onset of desensitization was slowed.