Neocortical neurons integrate inputs from thousands of presynaptic neurons that fire in vivo with frequencies that can reach 20 Hz. An important issue in understanding cortical integration is to determine the actual impact of presynaptic firing on postsynaptic neuron in the context of an active network. We used dual intracellular recordings from synaptically connected neurons or microstimulation to study the properties of spontaneous and evoked single-axon excitatory postsynaptic potentials (EPSPs) in vivo, in barbiturate or ketamine-xylazine anaesthetized cats. We found that active states of the cortical network were associated with higher variability and decrease in amplitude and duration of the EPSPs owing to a shunting effect. Moreover, the number of apparent failures markedly increased during active states as compared with silent states. Single-axon EPSPs in vivo showed mainly paired-pulse facilitation, and the paired-pulse ratio increased during active states as compare to silent states, suggesting a decrease in release probability during active states. Raising extracellular Ca(2+) concentration to 2.5-3.0 mm by reverse microdialysis reduced the number of apparent failures and significantly increased the mean amplitude of individual synaptic potentials. Quantitative analysis of spontaneous synaptic activity suggested that the proportion of presynaptic activity that impact at the soma of a cortical neuron in vivo was low because of a high failure rate, a shunting effect and probably dendritic filtering. We conclude that during active states of cortical network, the efficacy of synaptic transmission in individual synapses is low, thus safe transmission of information requires synchronized activity of a large population of presynaptic neurons.