The concentration dependence and kinetics of ionic currents activated by extracellular adenosine 5′-triphosphate (ATP) were studied in voltage-clamped dorsal root ganglion neurons from rats and bullfrogs. About 40% of neurons of both species responded to ATP with an increase in membrane conductance. The ATP-activated currents were similar in the 2 species, except that currents in rat neurons desensitized faster. In bullfrog neurons, the conductance was half-maximally activated by about 3 microM ATP; at low concentrations, the conductance increased 3- to 7- fold for a doubling in [ATP], suggesting that several ATP molecules must bind in order to activate the current. A steeper concentration- response relationship than expected from 1:1 binding was also seen in rat neurons. The current activated quickly upon application of ATP and decayed quickly when ATP was removed. Activation kinetics were faster at higher [ATP], with time constants decreasing from about 200 msec at 0.3 microM ATP to about 10 msec at 100 microM ATP. Deactivation kinetics (tau approximately 100–200 msec) were independent of the ATP concentration. The rapid activation and deactivation make it seem likely that the ATP-activated current is mediated by direct ligand binding rather than by a second-messenger system. The experimental observations can be mimicked by a simple model in which ATP must bind to 3 identical, noninteracting sites in order to activate a channel. The potency and kinetics of ATP action were voltage-dependent, with hyperpolarization slowing deactivation and increasing ATP's potency. Deactivation kinetics were also sensitive to the concentration of external Ca, becoming faster in higher Ca.