1. The pharmacological and biophysical properties of excitatory synapses in the CA1 region of the hippocampus were studied using patch electrodes and whole-cell recording from thin slices. 2. Excitatory postsynaptic currents (EPSCs) had a fast component whose amplitude was voltage insensitive and a slow component whose amplitude was voltage dependent with a region of negative slope resistance in the range of -70 to -30 mV. 3. The voltage-dependent component was abolished by the N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptor antagonist DL-2-amino-5-phosphonovalerate (APV; 50 microM), which had no effect on the fast component. Conversely, the fast voltage-insensitive component was abolished by the non-NMDA receptor antagonist 6-cyano-7-nitroquinoxaline-2,3-dione (CNQX; 10 microM) which had no effect on the slow component. 4. In Ringer solution with no added Mg2+ the current-voltage relation of the NMDA component was linear over a much larger voltage range than in the presence of 1.3 mM-Mg2+. 5. The NMDA component of the EPSC could be switched off with a hyperpolarizing voltage step at the soma. The kinetics of this switch-off was used to estimate the speed of clamp control of the subsynaptic membrane as well as the electrotonic distance from the soma. The kinetic analysis of the EPSC was restricted to synapses which were judged to be under adequate voltage control. 6. For those synapses that were close to the soma the time constant for decay for the non-NMDA component, which was voltage insensitive, ranged from 4-8 ms. 7. The rise time for the NMDA component was 8-20 ms and the time constant for decay ranged from 60-150 ms. 8. During increased transmitter release with post-tetanic potentiation or application or phorbol esters, both components of the EPSC increased to a similar extent. 9. These experiments provide a detailed description of the dual receptor mechanism operating at hippocampal excitatory synapses. In addition, the experiments provide an electrophysiological method for estimating the electrotonic distance of synaptic inputs.