Rhythm generation by the pyloric motor network in the stomatogastric ganglion (STG) of the spiny lobster requires permissive neuromodulatory inputs from other central ganglia. When these inputs to the STG are suppressed by cutting the single, mainly afferent stomatogastric nerve (stn), pyloric neurons cease to burst and the network falls silent. However, as shown previously, if such a decentralized quiescent ganglion is maintained in organ culture, pyloric network rhythmicity returns after 3-4 days and, although slower, is similar to the motor pattern expressed when the stn is intact. Here we use current- and voltage-clamp, primarily of identified pyloric dilator (PD) neurons, to investigate changes in synaptic and cellular properties that underlie this transition in network behavior. Although the efficacy of chemical synapses between pyloric neurons decreases significantly (by <or=50%) after STG decentralization, the fundamental change leading to rhythm recovery occurs in the voltage-dependent properties of the neurons themselves. Whereas pyloric neurons, including the PD, lateral pyloric, and pyloric cell types, are unable to generate burst-producing membrane potential oscillations in the short-term absence of extrinsic modulatory inputs, in long-term decentralized ganglia, the same cells are able to oscillate spontaneously, even after experimental isolation in situ from all other elements in the pyloric network. In PD neurons this reacquisition of rhythmicity is associated with a net reduction in outward tetraethylammonium-sensitive ionic currents that include a delayed-rectifier type potassium current (I(Kd)) and a calcium-dependent K(+) current, I(KCa). By contrast, long-term STG decentralization caused enhancement of a hyperpolarization-activated inward current that resembles I(h). These results are consistent with the hypothesis that modulatory inputs sustain the modulation-dependent rhythmogenic character of the pyloric network by continuously regulating the balance of membrane conductances that underlie neuronal oscillation.