Sympathetic preganglionic neurones located in the intermediolateral cell column (IML) are subject to inputs descending from higher brain regions, as well as strong influences from local interneurones. Since interneurones in the IML have been rarely studied directly we examined their electrophysiological and anatomical properties. Whole cell patch clamp recordings were made from neurones in the IML of 250 microM slices of the thoracic spinal cord of the rat at room temperature. Action potential durations of interneurones (4.2+/-0.1 ms) were strikingly shorter than those of sympathetic preganglionic neurones (9.4+/-0.2 ms) due to a more rapid repolarisation phase. Low concentrations of tetraethylammonium chloride (TEA) (0.5 mM) or 4-aminopyridine (4-AP) (30 microM) affected interneurones but not sympathetic preganglionic neurones by prolonging the action potential repolarisation as well as decreasing both the afterhypolarisation amplitude and firing frequency. Following recordings, neurones sensitive to TEA and 4-AP were confirmed histologically as interneurones with axons that ramified extensively in the spinal cord, including the IML and other autonomic regions. In contrast, all cells that were insensitive to TEA and 4-AP were confirmed as sympathetic preganglionic neurones. Both electrophysiological and morphological data are therefore consistent with the presence of the voltage-gated potassium channel subunit Kv3.1 in interneurones, but not sympathetic preganglionic neurones. Testing this proposal immunohistochemically revealed that Kv3.1b was localised in low numbers of neurones within the IML but in higher numbers of neurones on the periphery of the IML. Kv3.1b-expressing neurones were not sympathetic preganglionic neurones since they were not retrogradely labelled following intraperitoneal injections of Fluorogold. Since Kv3.2 plays a similar role to Kv3.1 we also tested for the presence of Kv3.2 using immunohistochemistry, but failed to detect it in neuronal somata in the spinal cord. These studies provide electrophysiological and morphological data on interneurones in the IML and indicate that the channels containing the Kv3.1 subunit are important in setting the firing pattern of these neurones.