The binding affinity of alpha-amino-3-hydroxy-5-methyl-4-isoxazolepropionic acid (AMPA) receptors for [3H]AMPA is increased 10-30-fold by the chaotropic anion thiocyanate. The present experiments tested if thiocyanate alters AMPA receptor mediated current fluxes and if any such effects are reflected in the waveform of synaptic responses. Currents were measured after a step application of glutamate or AMPA to patches excised from pyramidal cells of hippocampal slice cultures. Application of 1 mM AMPA produced responses with an average peak amplitude of 86 pA at -50 mV and a 10-90% rise time of 1.7 +/- 0.1 ms; the responses desensitized to a steady-state level below 10% of the peak current with a time constant of 11.1 +/- 0.7 ms. Glutamate in presence of D-amino-phosphonopentanoate produced similar responses which were inhibited by 6-cyano-7-nitro-quinoxaline-dione and enhanced by aniracetam or cyclothiazide and thus are characteristic for AMPA receptors. Thiocyanate accelerated the decay of AMPA responses two-fold and reduced the peak current by 30-50% with an EC50 of 3.2 mM which is comparable to its EC50 for enhancing binding. Effects on the desensitization of glutamate induced responses were much smaller and only evident at the highest thiocyanate concentration; no effect was seen on response amplitude. Binding and physiological effects can be adequately explained by assuming that thiocyanate enhances conversion from the sensitive to the desensitized state of the receptor and reduces ligand dissociation from the desensitized state. Synaptic responses were measured in disinhibited hippocampal slices. Perfusion with 20 mM sodium thiocyanate increased the slope of the field excitatory postsynaptic potential by 44.9 +/- 4.2% and reduced its decay time by 10.4 +/- 4.3%. The former effect appears to result at least in part from an increase in transmitter release since it was accompanied by a decrease in paired-pulse facilitation and was reduced in magnitude after enhancing transmitter release. The decrease in the decay time constant points to an effect of thiocyanate on AMPA receptors in situ which is similar to that seen in excised patches. These results demonstrate that an increase in binding affinity may be indicative of reduced rather than enhanced current flow through AMPA receptors. In addition, the results provide further evidence that the kinetics of the AMPA receptor channel contribute significantly to at least the decay phase of fast excitatory synaptic responses.