1. With the use of whole-cell patch-clamp recording. Na(+)-current expression was studied in hippocampal astrocytes in vitro, individually identified by filling with Lucifer yellow (LY) and staining for glial fibrillary acidic protein (GFAP) and vimentin. 2. The proportion of astrocytes that express Na+ currents in rat hippocampal cultures changes during development in vitro and decreases from approximately 75% at day 1 to approximately 30% after 10 days in culture. 3. The sodium currents expressed in astrocytes can be differentiated into two types on the basis of kinetics. At early times in culture the time course of Na+ currents is fast in both onset and decay with an average decay time constant of 1.27 ms, whereas after 6 days Na+ currents become comparatively slow and decayed with an average time constant of 1.86 ms. 4. As with the time-course of Na+ currents, the two age groups of astrocytes (i.e., days 1-5 and day 6 and older) differ with respect to their steady-state inactivation characteristics. Early after plating and up to day 5, the midpoint of the steady-state inactivation curve is close to -60 mV, as also observed in hippocampal neurons of various ages; in contrast, after 6 days in culture the curve is shifted by approximately 25 mV toward more hyperpolarized potentials with a midpoint close to -85 mV. 5. In contrast to h infinity-curves, current-voltage (I-V) curves of Na(+)-current activation were identical in all astrocytes studied and did not change with time in culture. 6. In astrocytes expressing Na+ currents, current densities (average of 35 pA/pF on day 1) decreased throughout the first 5 days and were almost abolished around days 4 and 5 in culture. Beginning on day 6, however, current densities increased again and maintained a steady level (average of 14 pA/pF) for the duration of the time period in culture (20 days). This biphasic time course closely correlates with the time course of changes in Na(+)-current kinetics and steady-state inactivation. 7. These data suggest that Na+ currents in cultured hippocampal astrocytes show characteristic changes with increasing time in culture. During the first 4-5 days in culture, hippocampal astrocytes display Na+ currents with properties similar to those of hippocampal neurons. Our data further suggest that Na+ currents with distinctive, "glial-type" characteristics are only expressed in hippocampal astrocytes after 6 days in culture.