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The role of histidine residues in the function of N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA)-activated channels was tested with the histidine-modifying reagent diethylpyrocarbonate (DEP) applied to cells and membrane patches from rat brain cortical neurons in culture. Channels in excised outside-out patches that were treated with 3 mM DEP for 15-30 s (pH 6.5) showed an average 3.4-fold potentiation in steady state open probability when exposed to NMDA and glycine. Analysis of the underlying alterations in channel gating revealed no changes in the numbers of kinetic states: distributions of open intervals were fitted with three exponential components, and four components described the shut intervals, in both control and DEP-modified channels. However, the distribution of shut intervals was obviously different after DEP treatment, consistent with the single-channel current record. After modification, the proportion of long shut states was decreased while the time constants were largely unaffected. Burst kinetics reflected these effects with an increase in the average number of openings/burst from 1.5 (control) to 2.2 (DEP), and a decrease in the average interburst interval from 54.1 to 38.2 ms. These effects were most likely due to histidine modification because other reagents (n- acetylimidazole and 2,4,6-trinitrobenzene 1-sulfonic acid) that are specific for residues other than histidine failed to reproduce the effects of DEP, whereas hydroxylamine could restore channel open probability to control levels. In contrast to these effects on channel gating, DEP had no effect on average single-channel conductance or reversal potential under bi-ionic (Na+:Cs+) conditions. Inhibition by zinc was also unaffected by DEP. We propose a channel gating model in which transitions between single- and multi-opening burst modes give rise to the channel activity observed under steady state conditions. When adjusted to account for the effects of DEP, this model suggests that one or more extracellular histidine residues involved in channel gating are associated with a single kinetic state.