To examine the mechanisms underlying milk-ejection bursts of oxytocin (OT) neurons during suckling, both in vivo and in vitro studies were performed on supraoptic OT neurons from lactating rats. The bursts were first recorded extracellularly in anesthetized rats. Burst-related electrical parameters were essentially the same as previous reports except for a trend toward transient decreases in basal firing rates immediately preceding the burst. From putative OT neurons in slices with extracellular recordings, bursts that closely mimicked the in vivo bursts were elicited by phenylephrine, an alpha1-adrenoceptor agonist, in a low-Ca(2+) medium. Moreover, in whole cell patch-clamp recordings, the in vitro bursts were recorded from immunocytochemically identified OT neurons. After a transient decrease in the basal firing rate, the in vitro bursts started with a sudden increase in the firing rate, quickly reaching a peak level, then gradually decaying, and ended with a postburst inhibition. A brief depolarization of the membrane potential and an increase in membrane conductance appeared after the onset of the burst. Spikes during a burst were characterized by a significant increase in the duration and decrease in the amplitude around the peak rate firing. These bursts were significantly different from short-lasting burst firing of vasopressin neurons in membrane potential changes, time to reach peak firing rate, spike amplitude and duration during peak rate firing. Our extensive analysis of these results suggests that the in vitro burst is a useful model for further study of mechanisms underlying milk-ejection bursts of OT neurons in vivo.