We have studied the activation and inhibition of the mouse muscle adult-type nicotinic acetylcholine receptor by tetraethylammonium (TEA) and related quaternary ammonium derivatives. The data show that TEA is a weak agonist of the nicotinic receptor. No single-channel clusters were observed at concentrations as high as 5 mM TEA or in the presence of a mutation which selectively increases the efficacy of the receptor. When coapplied with 1 mM carbamylcholine (CCh), TEA decreased the effective opening rate demonstrating that it acts as a competitive antagonist of CCh-mediated activation. Kinetic analysis of currents elicited by CCh and TEA allowed an estimate of receptor affinity for TEA of about 1 mM, while an upper limit of 10 s-1 could be set for the wild-type channel-opening rate constant for receptors activated by TEA alone. At millimolar concentrations, TEA inhibited nicotinic receptor currents by depressing the single-channel amplitude. The effect had an IC50 of 2-3 mM, depending on the conditions of the experiment, and resembled a standard open-channel block. However, the decrease in channel amplitudes was not accompanied by an increase in the mean burst duration, indicating that a linear open-channel blocking mechanism is not applicable. Upon studying block by other nicotinic receptor ligands it was found that block by CCh, tetramethylammonium and phenyltrimethyl-ammonium can be accounted for by the sequential blocking mechanism while block in the presence of methyltriethylammonium, ethyltrimethylammonium or choline was inconsistent with such a mechanism. A mechanism in which receptors blocked by TEA can close would account for the experimental findings.