1. Recent immunocytochemical and receptor binding data have demonstrated a transient somatotopic patterning of serotonin (5-HT)-immunoreactive fibers in the primary somatosensory cortex of developing rats and a transient expression of 5-HT1B receptors on thalamocortical axons from the ventral posteromedial thalamic nucleus (VPM). 2. These results suggest that 5-HT should strongly modulate thalamocortical synaptic transmission for a limited time during postnatal development. This hypothesis was tested in intracellular recording experiments carried out in thalamocortical slice preparations that included VPM, the thalamic radiations, and the primary somatosensory cortex. Effects of 5-HT and analogues were monitored on membrane potentials and input resistances of cortical neurons and on the amplitude of the synaptic potentials evoked in them by stimulation of VPM. 3. Results obtained from cortical neurons in slices taken from rats during the first 2 wk of life indicated that 5-HT strongly inhibited the VPM-evoked excitatory postsynaptic potential (EPSP) recorded from cortical neurons in a dose-dependent manner. In contrast, 5-HT had no significant effects on membrane potential, input resistance, or depolarizations induced by direct application of glutamic acid to cortical cells. 4. The effects of 5-HT were mimicked by the 5-HT1B receptor agonists 1-[3-(trifluoromethyl)phenyl]-piperazine (TFMPP) and 7-trifluoromethyl-4(4-methyl-1-piperazinyl)-pyrrolo[1,2-a]-quinoxaline maleate and antagonized by the 5-HT1B receptor antagonist (-)-pindolol. The 5-HT1A agonist [(+/-)8-hydroxydipropylaminotetralin HBr] (8-OH-DPAT) had less effect on the VPM-elicited EPSP, and the effects of 5-HT upon this response were generally not antagonized by either 1-(2-methoxyphenyl)-4-[4-(2- phthalimmido)butyl]piperazine HBr (a 5-HT1A antagonist) or ketanserine (a 5-HT2 antagonist) or spiperone (a 5-HT1A and 2 antagonist). 5. The ability of 5-HT to inhibit the VPM-evoked EPSP in cortical neurons was significantly reduced in slices from animals > 2 wk of age. The effectiveness of TFMPP in such animals was even more attenuated than that of 5-HT, and the effectiveness of 8-OH-DPAT was unchanged with age. These results are consistent with the disappearance of 5-HT1B receptors from thalamocortical axons after the second postnatal week and the maintenance of 5-HT1A receptors on some neurons. 6. All of the results obtained in this study are consistent with the conclusion that 5-HT has a profound, but developmentally transient, presynaptic inhibitory effect upon thalamocortical transmission in the rat's somatosensory cortex.