The ability of the soma of a spinal dorsal horn neuron, a spinal ventral horn neuron (presumably a motoneuron), and a hippocampal pyramidal neuron to generate action potentials was studied using patch-clamp recordings from rat spinal cord slices, the "entire soma isolation" method, and computer simulations. By comparing original recordings from an isolated soma of a dorsal horn neuron with simulated responses, it was shown that computer models can be adequate for the study of somatic excitability. The modeled somata of both spinal neurons were unable to generate action potentials, showing only passive and local responses to current injections. A four- to eightfold increase in the original density of Na(+) channels was necessary to make the modeled somata of both spinal neurons excitable. In contrast to spinal neurons, the modeled soma of the hippocampal pyramidal neuron generated spikes with an overshoot of +9 mV. It is concluded that the somata of spinal neurons cannot generate action potentials and seem to resist their propagation from the axon to dendrites. In contrast, the soma of the hippocampal pyramidal neuron is able to generate spikes. It cannot initiate action potentials in the intact neurons, but it can support their back-propagation from the axon initial segment to dendrites.