In mammals, ventilatory acclimatization to hypoxia is associated with an enhanced chemosensitivity of the O2-sensing carotid body, resulting in an increased respiratory drive. To test whether this sensitization involves long-term modulation of ion channel function in endogenous O2 chemoreceptors, i.e., type 1 cells, we exposed cultures of dissociated rat carotid body to chronic hypoxia (6% O2) for 1–2 weeks, before monitoring the electrophysiological properties of type 1 cells using whole-cell, perforated patch recording. Chronic hypoxia augmented voltage-dependent inward Na+ and Ca2+ currents in type 1 cells, without significant changes in voltage dependence of activation or steady-state inactivation. However, after normalizing for the concomitant increase in cell size, indicated by the whole-cell capacitance, only the Na+ current density was significantly enhanced. The Na+ current was sensitive to tetrodotoxin (TTX; 0.5–1 microM) or choline substitution, whereas most of the Ca2+ current was sensitive to the L-type calcium channel blocker, nifedipine (10 microM). Several of these effects of hypoxia were mimicked qualitatively by growing normoxic cultures in the presence of agents that elevate intracellular cyclic AMP, including dibutyryl cAMP (db-cAMP; 200 microM-1 mM) and forskolin (10 microM); treatment with similar concentrations of dibutyryl cyclic GMP was ineffective. Na+ channel induction by db-cAMP was abolished by the protein synthesis inhibitor, cycloheximide (90–180 microM). In current- clamp mode, these altered chemoreceptors had typical resting potentials of approximately -55 mV, and following depolarization often fired multiple spikes that appeared to consist of both short-duration Na+ and long-duration Ca2+ components. We propose that chronic hypoxia, acting in part through cAMP-dependent pathways, increases electrical excitability and calcium mobilization in type 1 cells, and these adaptations may help enhance chemosensitivity during hypoxic acclimatization.