The effects of kainic acid (KA) were studied using extracellular and intracellular recordings in the hippocampal slice preparation. In sufficient concentrations, KA led to a loss of all evoked responses. However, the amount of drug needed for this varied according to anatomic region. CA3 was more sensitive (1 microM) than CA1 or the dentate gyrus (10 microM). These results can be understood in terms of a profound and long-lasting depolarization of neurons. Lower concentrations of KA (0.05-0.1 microM) did not change the resting membrane potential or input resistance of hippocampal pyramidal cells but produced spontaneous epileptiform activity which originated in CA3 and propagated to CA1. Epileptiform discharges were not present in the dentate gyrus. Coincident with the induction of paroxysms, the following changes were observed: (1) an increase in the excitability of CA3 and CA1 pyramidal cells as measured by a left shift in the input-output curves of evoked responses and a lowered threshold stimulus intensity necessary for activation of action potentials in single neurons; (2) augmentation and synchronization of bursting in pyramidal cells; and (3) prolonged EPSPs without an increase in their amplitude. These findings indicate that multiple changes, involving both the properties of single neurons and synaptic connections, are involved in the development of hippocampal paroxysms and that CA3 and CA1 have different roles in the generation of these discharges.