Organotypic cultures of rat hippocampal slices were maintained for periods of up to 12 weeks in vitro. Cultures adopted a two-dimensional architecture whilst retaining the subfields characteristic of intact hippocampal slices. Coventional intracellular onset of spontaneous long-lasting epileptiform activity. Epileptiform activity characteristic of both interictal and ictal events (paroxysmal depolarising shifts, tonic/clonic phases and afterdischarges) was observed in the absence of pharmacological manipulation or of orthodromic stimulation. Epileptiform activity was abolished in the presence of high Mg2+ concentration or tetrodotoxin, agents known to block synaptic transmission. In addition, the frequency of epileptiform events was independent of membrane potential and the amplitude of the paroxysmal depolarising shift (PDS) displayed a near linear relationship with membrane potential. The PDS could be reversed at potentials approaching synaptic equilibrium potential. The N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA)-receptor antagonist DL-2-amino-5-phosphonovalerate (DL-APV) dose-dependently reduced both the amplitude and duration of the spontaneous paroxysmal shift, having no effect on the initiation of the event or the resting membrane parameters of the neurone. DL-APV also attenuated a late component of the synaptically evoked excitatory postsynaptic potentials (epsp) not observed in non-epileptiform neurones. Application of GABAA receptor antagonists bicuculline or picrotoxin converted interictal events to ictus. In the presence of these agents, ictal events were up to 90 s in duration. These results suggest that long-term culturing of hippocampal explants leads to an alteration in the balance of excitatory and inhibitory synaptic activity. This allows the expression of an excitatory amino acid depolarisation acting through NMDA receptors which contributes to the generation and maintenance of spontaneous epileptiform activity which is synaptic in origin.