We have examined the mechanisms underlying the voltage sensitivity of alpha-amino-3-hydroxy-5-methyl-4-isoxazolepropionate receptors in voltage-clamped outside-out patches and whole cells taken from the nucleus magnocellularis of the chick. Responses to either glutamate or kainate had outwardly rectifying current-voltage relations. The rate and extent of desensitization during prolonged exposure to agonist, and the rate of deactivation after brief exposure to agonist, decreased at positive potentials, suggesting that a kinetic transition was sensitive to membrane potential. Voltage dependence of the peak conductance and of the deactivation kinetics persisted when desensitization was reduced with aniracetam or blocked with cyclothiazide. Furthermore, the rate of recovery from desensitization to glutamate was not voltage dependent. Upon reduction of extracellular divalent cation concentration, kainate-evoked currents increased but preserved rectifying current-voltage relations. Rectification was strongest at lower kainate concentrations. Surprisingly, nonstationary variance analysis of desensitizing responses to glutamate or of the current deactivation after kainate removal revealed an increase in the mean single-channel conductance with more positive membrane potentials. These data indicate that the rectification of the peak response to a high agonist concentration reflects an increase in channel conductance, whereas rectification of steady-state current is dominated by voltage-sensitive channel kinetics.