Kainate receptors are ligand-gated ion channels that have two major roles in the central nervous system: they mediate a postsynaptic component of excitatory neurotransmission at some glutamatergic synapses and modulate transmitter release at both excitatory and inhibitory synapses. Accumulating evidence implicates kainate receptors in a variety of neuropathologies, including epilepsy, psychiatric disorders, developmental delay, and cognitive impairment. Here, to gain a deeper understanding of the conformational changes associated with agonist binding and channel opening, we generate a series of Cys substitutions in the GluK2 kainate receptor subunit, focusing on the M3 helices that line the ion pore and form the bundle-crossing gate at the extracellular mouth of the channel. Exposure to 50 μM Cd produces direct activation of homomeric mutant channels bearing Cys substitutions in (A657C), or adjacent to (L659C), the conserved SYT ANL AAF motif. Activation by Cd is occluded by modification with 2-aminoethyl MTS (MTS EA), indicating that Cd binds directly and specifically to the substituted cysteines. Cd potency for the A657C mutation (EC50 = 10 μM) suggests that binding involves at least two coordinating residues, whereas weaker Cd potency for L659C (EC50 = 2 mM) implies that activation does not require tight coordination by multiple side chains for this substitution. Experiments with heteromeric and chimeric channels indicate that activation by Cd requires Cys substitution at only two of the four subunits within a tetrameric receptor and that activation is similar for substitution within subunits in either the A/C or B/D conformations. We develop simple kinetic models for the A657C substitution that reproduce several features of Cd activation as well as the low-affinity inhibition observed at higher Cd concentrations (5-20 mM). Together, these results demonstrate rapid and reversible channel activation, independent of agonist site occupancy, upon Cd binding to Cys side chains at two specific locations along the GluK2 inner helix.