Arachidonic acid (AA) is a second messenger liberated via receptor activation of phospholipase A2 or diacylglycerol-lipase. We used whole-cell voltage clamp of acutely isolated hippocampal CA1 pyramidal cells to investigate the hypothesis that AA modulates Ca2+ channel current (ICa) via activation of protein kinase C (PKC) and generation of free radicals. AA depressed ICa in a dose- and time-dependent manner similar to that previously reported for the action of phorbol esters on ICa. A similar depression was seen with a xanthine-based free radical generating system. The specific PKC inhibitor PKCI (19-36), the protein kinase inhibitor H-7, and the superoxide free radical scavenger SOD each blocked ICa depression by 70%-80%. Complete block of the AA response occurred when SOD was used simultaneously with a PKC inhibitor. These data suggest that PKC and free radicals play a role in AA-induced suppression of ICa.