Ciguatoxin-1b, the major toxin involved in ciguatera fish poisoning, and D-mannitol were examined on frog nodes of Ranvier using confocal laser scanning microscopy and conventional current- and voltage-clamp techniques. During the action of 10 nM ciguatoxin-1b, an increase in nodal volume was observed as determined by digital image processing and three-dimensional reconstruction of axons. The increase was prevented by blocking Na+ channels with tetrodotoxin. Ciguatoxin-1b (10 nM) induced high frequency action potential discharges up to 70-100 Hz. Analysis of Na+ current revealed that the toxin modified a current fraction which was activated at resting membrane potential and failed to inactivate. Increasing the osmolality of the external solution by about 50% with D-mannitol restored the nodal volume to its control value and suppressed spontaneous action potentials. In addition, D-mannitol affected unmodified and ciguatoxin-1b-treated Na+ currents in a similar manner causing a reduction of maximum conductance, negative shifts of current reversal potential and modification of the voltage-dependence of current activation and inactivation. In conclusion, ciguatoxin-1b induced a tetrodotoxin-sensitive swelling of nodes of Ranvier and selectively affected the Na+ current of myelinated axons. It is proposed that ciguatoxin-1b, by modifying Na+ current, increased intracellular Na+ concentration which caused water influx and nodal swelling. This may explain some of the reported symptoms of ciguatera fish poisoning. D-mannitol, an agent used for ciguatera treatment, was found to reverse the effects of ciguatoxin-1b by reducing Na+ entry and increasing the efflux of water through its osmotic action. It is the first time that osmotic changes produced by the selective activation of ionic channels, i.e. Na+ channels, are reported.