The behavior of nicotinic acetylcholine receptor (nAChR) channels in acutely isolated habenula neurons was examined by rapidly applying nicotinic agonists to outside-out membrane patches. At negative membrane potentials, applications of 100 microM nicotine routinely produced macroscopic currents due to the opening of a large number of channels. During the continuous application of the agonist, the number of open nAChR channels decreased exponentially, i.e. receptor desensitization. A progressive loss in the number of channels contributing to the peak current was observed with time following outside-out patch excision, i.e. receptor rundown. In addition to rundown there was a time-dependent increase in the rate of desensitization and a concomitant slowing in the rate of recovery from desensitization. The extent of rundown and the changes in desensitization were coupled to the time after patch excision and were not dependent on ligand activation of nicotinic channels.