Regulation of nonspecific cation channels often underlies neuronal bursting and other prolonged changes in neuronal activity. In bag cell neurons of Aplysia, it recently has been suggested that an intracellular messenger-induced increase in the activity of a nonspecific cation channel may underlie the onset of a 30-min period of spontaneous action potentials referred to as the "afterdischarge. " In patch clamp studies of the channel, we show that the open probability of the channel can be increased by an average of 10. 7-fold by application of ATP to the cytoplasmic side of patches. Duration histograms indicate that the increase is primarily a result of a reduction in the duration and percentage of channel closures described by the slowest time constant. The increase in open probability was not observed using 5'-adenylylimidodiphosphate, a nonhydrolyzable ATP analog, and was blocked in the presence of H7 or the more specific calcium/phospholipid-dependent protein kinase C (PKC) inhibitor peptide(19-36). Because the increase in activity observed in response to ATP occurred without application of protein kinase, our results indicate that a kinase endogenous to excised patches mediates the effect. The effect of ATP could be reversed by exogenously applied protein phosphatase 1 or by a microcystin-sensitive phosphatase also endogenous to excised patches. These results, together with work demonstrating the presence of a protein tyrosine phosphatase in these patches, suggest that the cation channel is part of a regulatory complex including at least three enzymes. This complex may act as a molecular switch to activate the cation channel and, thereby, trigger the afterdischarge.