1. Currents through calcium-activated non-specific cation (CAN) channels were studied in the fast burster neurone of Helix aspersa and Helix pomatia. CAN currents were activated by reproducible intracellular injections of small quantities of Ca2+ utilizing a fast, quantitative pressure injection technique. 2. External application of forskolin (10-25 microM), an activator of adenylate cyclase, caused the endogenous bursting activity of the cells to be replaced by beating activity. These same concentrations of forskolin reduced CAN currents reversibly to about 50%. 3. External application of IBMX (3-isobutyl-1-methylxanthine, 100 microM), an inhibitor of phosphodiesterase, the enzyme which breaks down cyclic AMP, reduced CAN currents reversibly to about 40%. 4. External application of the membrane-permeable cyclic AMP analogues 8-bromo-cyclic AMP and dibutyryl-cyclic AMP (100 microM) caused almost complete block of the CAN current. A marked reduction in the CAN current was also observed following quantitative injections of cyclic AMP (internal concentrations up to 50 microM) directly into the cells from a second pressure injection pipette. 5. Similar results were obtained with quantitative injections of the catalytic subunit (C-subunit) of the cyclic AMP-dependent protein kinase (internal concentrations 10(-4) units of enzyme) directly into the cells from a second pressure injection pipette. 6. Injection of the non-hydrolysable GTP analogue, GTP-gamma-S (internal concentrations 100 microM), which stimulates G-proteins, produced a prolonged increase in CAN current amplitude by as much as 300%. 7. External application of serotonin (100-200 microM) caused a transition from bursting to beating activity of the neurones and mimicked cyclic AMP's effects on CAN currents. Two other neurotransmitters, dopamine and acetylcholine, were not significantly effective in reducing CAN currents. 8. Injection of a peptide inhibitor of cyclic AMP-dependent protein kinase suppressed serotonin's action on bursting and on CAN current. 9. Our results indicate that CAN currents in Helix burster neurones are modulated by cyclic AMP-dependent membrane phosphorylation. They suggest that the physiological transmitter that induces this second messenger action is serotonin. The dual control of CAN channels by two second messengers, namely Ca2+ and cyclic AMP, has important functional implications. While Ca2+ activates these channels which generate the pacemaker current in these neurones, cyclic AMP-dependent phosphorylation down-regulates them, thereby resulting in modulation of neuronal bursting activity.