The ability of sodium pyrithione (NaP), an agent that produces delayed neuropathy in some species, to alter neuronal physiology was accessed using ratiometric imaging of cytosolic free Ca(2+) concentration ([Ca(2+)](i)) in fura PE-filled cultured Aplysia bag cell neurons. Bath-application of NaP evoked a [Ca(2+)](i) elevation in both somata and neurites with an EC(50) of approximately 300 nM and a Hill coefficient of approximately 1. The response required the presence of external Ca(2+), had an onset of 3-5 min, and generally reached a maximum within 30 min. 2-Methyl-sulfonylpyridine, a metabolite and close structural analog of NaP, did not elevate [Ca(2+)](i). Under whole-cell current-clamp recording, NaP produced a approximately 14 mV depolarization of resting membrane potential that was dependent on external Ca(2+). These data suggested that NaP stimulates Ca(2+) entry across the plasma membrane. To minimize the possibility that a change in cytosolic pH was the basis for NaP-induced Ca(2+) entry, bag cell neuron intracellular pH was estimated with the dye 2',7'-bis(carboxyethyl-5(6)-carboxy-fluorescein acetoxy methylester. Exposure of the neurons to NaP did not alter intracellular pH. The slow onset and sustained nature of the NaP response suggested that a cation exchange mechanism coupled either directly or indirectly to Ca(2+) entry could underlie the phenomenon. However, neither ouabain, a Na(+)/K(+) ATPase inhibitor, nor removal of extracellular Na(+), which eliminates Na(+)/Ca(2+) exchanger activity, altered the NaP-induced [Ca(2+)](i) elevation. Finally, the possibility that NaP gates a Ca(2+)-permeable ion channel in the plasma membrane was examined. NaP did not appear to activate two major forms of bag cell neuron Ca(2+)-permeable ion channels, as Ca(2+) entry was unaffected by inhibition of voltage-gated Ca(2+) channels using nifedipine or by inhibition of a voltage-dependent, nonselective cation channel using a high concentration of tetrodotoxin. In contrast, two potential store-operated Ca(2+) entry current inhibitors, SKF-96365 and Ni(2+), attenuated NaP-induced Ca(2+) entry. We conclude that NaP activates a slow, persistent Ca(2+) influx in Aplysia bag cell neurons.