1. Magnocellular neurosecretory cells (MNCs) were isolated from the supraoptic nucleus of adult Long-Evans rats using an enzymatic procedure. Immunocytochemical staining with antibodies against vasopressin and oxytocin revealed that MNCs can be identified by size. The membrane properties of these cells were examined at 32-34 degrees C using intracellular recording methods. 2. Isolated MNCs displayed a mean (+/- S.E.M.; n = 109) resting membrane potential of -64.1 +/- 1.0 mV, an input resistance of 571 +/- 34 M omega, and a time constant of 8.7 +/- 0.4 ms. Measurements of specific resistivity and input capacitance revealed that the soma of these cells accounts for a mere 20% of their total somato-dendritic membrane in situ. 3. Voltage-current relations measured near -60 mV were linear negative to spike threshold. From more hyperpolarized membrane potentials, voltage responses to depolarizing current steps displayed transient outward rectification and delayed impulse discharge. 4. Action potentials (76.6 +/- 0.9 mV) triggered from an apparent threshold of -59.3 +/- 0.1 mV broadened progressively at the onset of spontaneous or current-evoked spike trains. Steady-state spike duration increased as a logarithmic function of firing frequency with a maximum near 25 Hz. These effects were abolished in Ca(2+)-free solutions. 5. In all cells, evoked spike trains were followed by a prolonged Ca(2+)-sensitive after-hyperpolarization. In contrast, only a small proportion (16%) of MNCs displayed spontaneous bursting activity or depolarizing after-potentials following brief current-evoked bursts. 6. Isolated MNCs responded to amino acids (glutamate and GABA) and to the neuropeptide cholecystokinin, indicating that receptors for these neurotransmitters are expressed postsynaptically by MNCs and are retained following dissociation. 7. Increasing the osmolality of the superfusing solution by 5-30 mosmol kg-1 caused a membrane depolarization associated with a decrease of input resistance and accelerated spontaneous spike discharge in each of thirty-six MNCs tested. Current-clamp analysis suggested that these responses resulted from the activation of a cationic conductance. Excitatory effects of hyperosmolality were not observed in non-magnocellular neurones (n = 6).