The long-term structural and functional consequences of transient forebrain ischaemia were studied with morphological, immunohistochemical and in vitro electrophysiological techniques in the primary somatosensory cortex of Wistar rats. After survival times of 10-17 months postischaemia, neocortical slices obtained from ischaemic animals were characterized by a pronounced neuronal hyperexcitability in comparison with untreated age-matched controls. Extra- and intracellular recordings in supragranular layers revealed all-or-none long-latency recurrent responses to orthodromic synaptic stimulation of the afferent pathway. These responses were characterized by durations up to 1.7 s, by multiple components and by repetitive synaptic burst discharges. The reversible blockade of this late activity by DL-amino-phosphonovaleric acid (APV) suggested that this activity was mediated by N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptors. The peak conductance of inhibitory postsynaptic potentials was significantly smaller in neurons recorded in neocortical slices obtained from ischaemic animals than those from the controls. However, the average number of parvalbumin (PV)-labelled neurons per mm3, indicative of a subpopulation of GABAergic interneurons, and the average number and length of dendritic processes arising from PV-containing cells was not significantly different between ischaemic and control cortex. The prominent dysfunction of the inhibitory system in ischaemic animals occurred without obvious structural alterations in PV-labelled cells, indicating that this subpopulation of GABAergic interneurons is not principally affected by ischaemia. Our data suggest a long-term down-regulation of inhibitory function and a concurrent NMDA receptor-mediated hyperexcitability in ischaemic neocortex. These alterations may result from structural and/or functional properties of inhibitory non-PV-positive neurons or permanent functional modifications on the subcellular molecular level, i.e. alterations in the phosphorylation status of GABA and/or NMDA receptors. The net result of these long-term changes is an imbalance between the excitatory and inhibitory systems in the ischaemic cortex with the subsequent expression and manifestation of intracortical hyperexcitability.