Tests were carried out to determine if repetitive bursts of afferent stimulation activate calpain, a calcium-dependent protease hypothesized to be involved in the production of long-term potentiation. Antibodies against a stable breakdown product that results from proteolysis of spectrin by calpain were used to identify sites of enzyme activation in cultured hippocampal slices. Slices in which theta-burst stimulation was applied to the Schaffer collateral fibers had pronounced accumulations of breakdown product that were restricted to field CA1, the zone innervated by the stimulated axons. Labelling occurred in the form of scattered puncta and was also present in dendritic processes. The extent of these effects was correlated (r = 0.73) with the amount of theta-burst stimulation delivered. Control slices or those receiving low frequency stimulation had variable, but uniformly lower, amounts of breakdown product and were clearly distinguishable from those given theta bursts. Statistical analyses using a six point rating scheme confirmed this point (P < 0.001). These results satisfy an essential prediction of the hypothesis that calpain plays an important role in the induction of long-term potentiation.