Limbic status epilepticus and preparation of hippocampal slice cultures both produce cell loss and denervation. This commonality led us to hypothesize that morphological and physiological alterations in hippocampal slice cultures may be similar to those observed in human limbic epilepsy and animal models. To test this hypothesis, we performed electrophysiological and morphological analyses in long-term (postnatal day 11; 40-60 days in vitro) organotypic hippocampal slice cultures. Electrophysiological analyses of dentate granule cell excitability revealed that granule cells in slice cultures were hyperexcitable compared with acute slices from normal rats. In physiological buffer, spontaneous electrographic granule cell seizures were seen in 22% of cultures; in the presence of a GABA(A) receptor antagonist, seizures were documented in 75% of cultures. Hilar stimulation evoked postsynaptic potentials (PSPs) and multiple population spikes in the granule cell layer, which were eliminated by glutamate receptor antagonists, demonstrating the requirement for excitatory synaptic transmission. By contrast, under identical recording conditions, acute hippocampal slices isolated from normal rats exhibited a lack of seizures, and hilar stimulation evoked an isolated population spike without PSPs. To examine the possibility that newly formed excitatory synaptic connections to the dentate gyrus contribute to granule cell hyperexcitability in slice cultures, anatomical labeling and electrophysiological recordings following knife cuts were performed. Anatomical labeling of individual dentate granule, CA3 and CA1 pyramidal cells with neurobiotin illustrated the presence of axonal projections that may provide reciprocal excitatory synaptic connections among these regions and contribute to granule cell hyperexcitability. Knife cuts severing connections between CA1 and the dentate gyrus/CA3c region reduced but did not abolish hilar-evoked excitatory PSPs, suggesting the presence of newly formed, functional synaptic connections to the granule cells from CA1 and CA3 as well as from neurons intrinsic to the dentate gyrus. Many of the electrophysiological and morphological abnormalities reported here for long-term hippocampal slice cultures bear striking similarities to both human and in vivo models, making this in vitro model a simple, powerful system to begin to elucidate the molecular and cellular mechanisms underlying synaptic rearrangements and epileptogenesis.