Functional consequences of either suppressing or intensifying spontaneous neuronal firing have been studied in developing rat cerebral cortex cultures using, respectively, tetrodotoxin (TTX) and picrotoxin (PTX) added chronically to the growth medium. Simple measures derived from the interspike interval histogram were able to powerfully discriminate between age and treatment groups. After return to control medium, most TTX-treated neurons spontaneously displayed stereotyped clustering of action potentials ('phasic' firing) which closely resembled the characteristic firing patterns seen acutely in the presence of PTX. The 'TTX-syndrome' thus suggests that GABAergic synaptic inhibition is ineffective in cortical networks grown under conditions which prevent the expression of bioelectric activity. In contrast, after return to control medium, neurons which had been partially disinhibited throughout development (by continuous exposure to PTX) had even less phasic firing than was measured in age-matched controls. Based upon these and previous findings, a two (main) factor model is put forth which can economically account for the major effects. The working hypothesis embodied in this model is that phasic neuronal discharges not only accelerate the maturation of excitatory connections within the neocortex but, even more important, are crucial for the development of adequate inhibitory synaptic transmission.