Serotonin (5-HT) induces a large inward current accompanied by a conductance increase when applied focally to either neurons of mouse hippocampal cultures or cells of the NG108-15 clonal cell line. In both systems, the response is blocked by ICS 205-930, curare, and metoclopramide, while 2-methyl-5-HT is an agonist. The actions of ICS 205-930 and 2-methyl-5-HT indicate that the response is mediated by the 5-HT3 receptor. In NG108-15 cells the response activated in as little as 35 ms. The rapidity of the response suggests a direct coupling between the 5-HT3 receptor and a channel, which are probably both part of a single membrane protein. In both cell types, prolonged application of 5-HT resulted in desensitization; the rates of desensitization were accelerated by the adenylate cyclase activator forskolin. The 5-HT3 receptor has much in common with the nicotinic receptor and is probably involved in rapid synaptic transmission in the mammalian brain. Since this response is modulated by manipulations that elevate intracellular cAMP levels, the central synapses in which this receptor operates may exhibit plasticity.