We have characterized a cationic membrane conductance activated by metabotropic glutamatergic and muscarinic cholinergic agonists in CA3 neurons in hippocampal slice cultures using the patch-clamp technique. When the potassium concentration in the superfusing fluid was raised above 5 mM, a biphasic current was observed in cells held at -60 mV in response to stimulation of postsynaptic metabotropic glutamate receptors (mGluRs) with 1S,3R-ACPD (50 microM) or muscarinic receptors with methacholine (MCh, 5 microM). The initial inward component was due to an increase in a cationic membrane conductance as determined by its reversal potential and its sensitivity to changes in extracellular K+ or Na+. The conductance underlying this current displayed no apparent voltage sensitivity over the range -120 to -50 mV. The response was reduced by extracellular application of Ba2+, Cd2+, Mg2+, or TEA, whereas extracellular Cs+ or loading cells with BAPTA or Cs+ did not affect the current. The effects of 1S,3R-ACPD were reversibly inhibited by bath-applied MCPG, an antagonist at mGluRs. Experiments with atropine and pirenzepine indicated that non-M1 muscarinic receptors mediated the MCh-induced current. A decrease in a resting leak potassium conductance (IK,leak) was responsible for the late component of the 1S,3R-ACPD- and MCh-induced response, seen as an outward current in the bathing solution with high K+ concentration. Loading cells with GDP beta S, GTP gamma S, or GTP did not alter the cationic current, while, in the same cells, the reduction in IKleak was abolished or irreversibly activated. Single-channel recordings of cationic channel activity in the cell-attached configuration provided evidence for the requirement of second messengers in coupling these receptors to the cationic channels. The data indicate that in addition to the previously described reduction of IK,leak, IM, and IAHP, both 1S,3R-ACPD and MCh activate a nonselective cationic conductance that is clearly revealed upon elevating external K+ concentration. This current is mediated by activation of metabotropic receptors, although no evidence could be obtained to show an involvement of G-proteins.