Morphological and electrophysiological techniques were used to examine granule cells and their mossy fiber axons in nine surgically resected hippocampal specimens from temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE) patients. Timm histochemistry showed mossy fiber sprouting into the inner molecular layer (IML) of the dentate in a subset of tissue samples. In slices from five tissue samples, stimulus-induced bursting activity could be induced with a low concentration (2.5 microM) of bicuculline; bursts were sensitive to the N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) blocker, APV. There was a general correlation between such sprouting and experimentally induced hyperexcitability. Fourteen granule cells from five tissue samples were intracellularly stained [with lucifer yellow (LY) or neurobiotin]. Axons from a subset of these neurons showed axon collaterals reaching into the IML, but this axon projection pattern for single cells was not directly correlated with degree of mossy fiber sprouting shown grossly by Timm staining. Electron microscopic examination of intracellularly stained elements showed mossy fiber axon terminals making asymmetric synaptic contacts (including autapses on the granule cell dendrite) with dendritic shafts and spines in both apical and basal domains. These data are consistent with the hypothesis that mossy fiber sprouting provides a structural basis for recurrent excitation of granule cells, but does not provide direct support of the hypothesis that mossy fiber sprouting causes hyperexcitability. The data suggest that granule cell bursting activity is at least in part a function of compromised synaptic inhibition, since levels of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) blockade that are generally subthreshold for burst induction were epileptogenic in some tissue samples from human epileptic hippocampus.