Mitral cells, the principal cells of the olfactory bulb, respond to sensory stimulation with precisely timed patterns of action potentials. By contrast, the same neurons generate intermittent spike clusters with variable timing in response to simple step depolarizations. We made whole cell recordings from mitral cells in rat olfactory bulb slices to examine the mechanisms by which normal sensory stimuli could generate precisely timed spike clusters. We found that individual mitral cells fired clusters of action potentials at 20-40 Hz, interspersed with periods of subthreshold membrane potential oscillations in response to depolarizing current steps. TTX (1 microM) blocked a sustained depolarizing current and fast subthreshold oscillations in mitral cells. Phasic stimuli that mimic trains of slow excitatory postsynaptic potentials (EPSPs) that occur during sniffing evoked precisely timed spike clusters in repeated trials. The amplitude of the first simulated EPSP in a train gated the generation of spikes on subsequent EPSPs. 4-aminopyridine (4-AP)-sensitive K(+) channels are critical to the generation of spike clusters and reproducible spike timing in response to phasic stimuli. Based on these results, we propose that spike clustering is a process that depends on the interaction between a 4-AP-sensitive K(+) current and a subthreshold TTX-sensitive Na(+) current; interactions between these currents may allow mitral cells to respond selectively to stimuli in the theta frequency range. These intrinsic properties of mitral cells may be important for precisely timing spikes evoked by phasic stimuli that occur in response to odor presentation in vivo.