Membrane currents in cultured murine oligodendrocytes and their precursors were characterized using the patch-clamp technique. Prior to recording, cells were identified by immunofluorescence using monoclonal antibodies characteristic of two types of precursor cells and two differentiation stages of oligodendrocytes. The most immature, A2B5 antigen-positive glial precursors, expressed four types of voltage-activated K+ currents and tetrodotoxin-sensitive Na+ currents. The more differentiated cells, O4 antigen-positive glial precursors, expressed similar K+ currents, but Na+ currents were recorded in only a minority of cells. In differentiated O1 and O10 antigen-positive oligodendrocytes the channels characteristic of precursor cells were no longer observed, but an inwardly rectifying K+ current was apparent. Thus, channel expression by cells of the oligodendrocyte lineage correlates with differentiation stage and is more complex in precursor cells than in oligodendrocytes.