The molluscan neuropeptide FMRFamide has an inhibitory effect on transmitter release from the presynaptic sensory neurons in the neural circuit for the siphon withdrawal reflex. We have explored whether FMRFamide also acts postsynaptically in motor neurons in this circuit, focusing on the LFS motor neurons. FMRFamide typically produces a biphasic response in LFS neurons: a fast excitatory response followed by a prolonged inhibitory response. We have analyzed these postsynaptic actions and compared them with the mechanism of FMRFamide's inhibition of the presynaptic sensory neurons. The transient excitatory effect of FMRFamide, which desensitizes rapidly, is due to activation of a TTX- insensitive, Na(+)-dependent inward current. The late hyperpolarizing phase of the FMRFamide response results from activation of at least two K+ currents. One component of the hyperpolarizing response is active at rest and at more hyperpolarized membrane potentials, and is blocked by 5 mM 4-aminopyridine, suggesting that it differs from the previously described FMRFamide-modulated K+ currents in the presynaptic sensory neurons. In addition, FMRFamide increases a 4-aminopyridine-insensitive K+ current. Presynaptically, FMRFamide increases K+ conductance, acting via release of arachidonic acid. In the LFS motor neurons, application of arachidonic acid mimicked the prolonged, hyperpolarizing phase of the FMRFamide response; 4-bromophenacyl bromide, an inhibitor of phospholipase A2, selectively blocked this component of the FMRFamide response. Thus, FMRFamide may act in parallel pre- and post- synaptically to inhibit the output of the siphon withdrawal reflex circuit, producing this inhibitory effect via the same second messenger in the sensory neurons and motor neurons, though a number of the K+ currents modulated in these two types of neurons are different.