Application of progesterone to Xenopus oocytes expressing a cloned neuronal nicotinic acetylcholine (nAChR) revealed two effects. The first effect was a fully reversible reduction of the current induced by acetylcholine (ACh), its onset being nearly instantaneous. The second effect, which developed in a few hours, was an irreversible suppression of ACh-evoked currents. The transient inhibition had an apparent Ki of 7 microM when tested with 50 nM ACh, but the percentage of inhibition was positively correlated to the ACh concentration. A reduction of ACh-induced currents which appeared immediately upon progesterone application was also observed with muscle nAChR expressed in oocytes and with nAChR on membrane patches isolated from ciliary ganglion neurons. Thus nAChRs are modulated by progesterone and steroids may play an important role in nicotinic cholinoception.