An in vivo preparation has been developed to study the mechanisms underlying spontaneous sleep oscillations. Dual and triple simultaneous intracellular recordings were made from neurons in small isolated cortical slabs (10 mm x 6 mm) in anesthetized cats. Spontaneously occurring slow sleep oscillations, present in the adjacent intact cortex, were absent in small slabs. However, the isolated slabs displayed brief active periods separated by long periods of silence, up to 60 s in duration. During these silent periods, 60% of neurons showed non-linear amplification of low-amplitude depolarizing activity. Nearly 40% of the cells, twice as many as in intact cortex, were classified as intrinsically bursting. In cortical network models based on Hodgkin-Huxley-like neurons, the summation of simulated spontaneous miniature excitatory postsynaptic potentials was sufficient to activate a persistent sodium current, initiating action potentials in single neurons that then spread through the network. Consistent with this model, enlarging the isolated cortical territory to an isolated gyrus (30 mm x 20 mm) increased the probability of initiating large-scale activity. In these larger territories, both the frequency and regularity of the slow oscillation approached that generated in intact cortex. The frequency of active periods in an analytical model of the cortical network accurately predicted the scaling observed in simulations and from recordings in cortical slabs of increasing size.