Characterization of the newly discovered G-protein-coupled cannabinoid receptor in brain requires determination of its functional significance. The effects are reported of several potent cannabinoid analogs (CP 55,244, CP 55,940, levonantradol and WIN 55,212-2) on cultured neurons from hippocampus, a brain region that exhibits high cannabinoid receptor density. The electrophysiological effects of cannabinoids were determined by whole-cell patch clamp recordings of voltage-dependent potassium currents. The voltage dependence of the rapidly inactivating potassium A current (IA), characteristic of hippocampal neurons, was significantly altered in a concentration-dependent manner by cannabinoid analogs. Decreased inactivation, which led to an increased activation of IA near resting levels in these cells, was observed after brief local extracellular applications of cannabinoids. These actions were blocked by pertussis toxin. Cellular dialysis of GTP-gamma-S mimicked the actions of cannabinoids on IA while blocking further effects due to added cannabinoids. The rank order of potency of the cannabinoid analogs was similar to that observed with respect to binding at cannabinoid receptors in brain membranes. The concentration-related effectiveness of cannabinoid analogs in modulating IA was similar to their potency in stimulating low Km GTPase in cell membranes isolated from the cannabinoid receptor-rich dentate gyrus. These data support the conclusion that cannabinoid effects on IA are mediated through G-protein-coupled receptors. This cannabinoid-induced shift in the voltage dependence of IA could serve to counteract fast, transient, depolarizing events such as action potentials and synaptic currents in hippocampal neurons.