Sindbis virus-based vectors have been successfully used for transient heterologous protein expression in neurons. Their main limitation arises from infection-associated cytotoxicity, attributed largely to a progressive shut down of host cell protein synthesis. Here we evaluated a modified Sindbis vector, based on a viral strain containing a point mutation in the second nonstructural protein, nsP2 P726S, described to delay inhibition of protein synthesis in BHK cells [Virology 228 (1997) 74], for heterologous expression in neurons in vitro and in vivo. First, we constructed an optimized helper vector, termed DH-BB(tRNA/TE12), for production of SINrep(nsP2S(726)) viral particles with low levels of helper RNA co-packaging and high neurospecificity of infection. Second, we determined that hippocampal primary neurons infected with SINrep(nsP2S(726)) virus expressing EGFP showed a delayed onset of viral induced cytotoxicity and higher levels of EGFP expression in comparison to cells infected with wild type SINrep5 EGFP-expressing virus. However, a strong decrease in protein synthesis still occurred by day 3 postinfection. The SINrep(nsP2S(726)) vector is thus well suited for rapid high level expression within this time window. As an experimental example, we demonstrate the applicability of this system for high-resolution two-photon imaging of dendritic spines in vivo.