The whole cell patch clamp technique was used to examine the electrophysiological properties of embryonic hippocampal neurons maintained in a very low density (VLD) culture preparation. The goal of these experiments was to establish the viability of the VLD culture as a model system in which to study regulation of neurotransmission at single monosynaptic connections, in the absence of polysynaptic innervation. Depolarization of neurons in the VLD culture revealed voltage-dependent sodium, calcium, and potassium currents which were blocked with, respectively, tetrodotoxin (TTX), cobalt, and tetraethylammonium and 4-aminopyridine. When pairs of neurons were simultaneously recorded, action potentials evoked in presynaptic neurons elicited either excitatory or inhibitory postsynaptic currents (EPSCs or IPSCs, respectively). The dual component EPSCs were due to the activation of both types of postsynaptic, ionotropic glutamate receptors: N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) and non-NMDA receptors. Evoked IPSCs were due to the activation of postsynaptic gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) receptors. Both excitatory and inhibitory synapses exhibited short term depression in response to high frequency stimulation, although IPSCs were routinely decreased to a much greater degree than EPSCs. Spontaneous miniature EPSCs and IPSCs were found to persist in TTX, were blocked by the same pharmacological antagonists which blocked evoked responses, increased in frequency in response to hypersomotic solution, and were unaffected by changes in extracellular calcium concentration. mIPSCS were found to occur at a significantly lower frequency than mEPSCs. These experiments indicated that neurotransmission in the VLD cultures occurs in a manner consistent with the quantal hypothesis and, therefore, the VLD culture is a good model for studying excitatory and inhibitory neurotransmission between isolated pairs of neurons. In addition, these experiments, performed under comparable physiological conditions, demonstrated that there are fundamental differences underlying neurotransmitter release between excitatory and inhibitory neurons.