The hyperexcitability accompanying chronic epileptiform activity may result from long-term alterations of ligand- and voltage-gated channels. Previous studies have indicated that NMDA responses and other electrophysiological characteristics of dentate gyrus granule cells are profoundly altered following chronic epilepsy (kindling). We have now investigated channels activated by NMDA using whole-cell patch-clamp and cell-attached single-channel recordings in granule cells acutely isolated from control and epileptic (kindled) rats. In control neurons, the amplitude of whole-cell NMDA currents was not sensitive to the presence of an intracellular ATP regeneration system, whereas NMDA currents in kindled cells showed a great variability, with larger amplitudes consistently recorded in the presence of intracellular high-energy phosphates. The ratio of peak to steady-state NMDA current (desensitization) was comparable (approximately 51%) in control and kindled neurons. Single-channel conductance determined from fluctuation analysis of whole-cell NMDA currents ranged between 21 and 35 pS in control and between 17 and 37 pS in kindled cells. Whole-cell NMDA channel noise power spectra yielded a single normal distribution of long channel lifetimes (mean, 4.3 msec) in control neurons, and the sum of two normal distributions (means, 4.6 and 7.1 msec) in kindled cells. The voltage-dependent Mg2+ block of NMDA channels was altered following kindling. From curves fitted to voltage-ramp-evoked currents in the presence of NMDA, the calculated affinity for Mg2+ of kindled channels at 0 mV was lower (12 mM) than that of controls (1.7 mM). Cell-attached recordings in the absence of Mg2+ have substantiated the lack of effect of kindling on single-channel conductance (approximately 50 pS), and have demonstrated large increases in mean open times (from 1.26 msec in control to 2.05 msec in kindled), burst lengths (from 1.91 msec to 4.18 msec), and cluster lengths (from 9.11 msec to 20.86 msec) of NMDA channels in kindled neurons. In summary, kindling, an NMDA receptor-dependent form of activity-dependent neuronal plasticity induced in vivo, results in lasting modifications in the function of single NMDA receptor channels that can be studied in acutely dissociated neurons. Kindling-induced epilepsy predominantly affects the mean open time, burst, and cluster duration of NMDA channels, their sensitivity to intracellular high-energy phosphates, and their block by Mg2+, but not the desensitization or single-channel conductance. Such alterations may reflect a change in the molecular structure of NMDA channels and may underlie the maintenance of the epileptic state.