By intracellular and whole cell recording in rat brain slices, it was found that bath-applied serotonin (5-HT) produces an increase in the frequency and amplitude of spontaneous excitatory postsynaptic potentials/currents (EPSPs/EPSCs) in layer V pyramidal cells of neocortex and transitional cortex (e.g. medial prefrontal, cigulate and frontoparietal). The EPSCs were suppressed by LY293558, an antagonist selective for the AMPA subtype of excitatory amino acid receptor, and by two selective 5-HT2A receptor antagonists, MDL 100907 and SR 46349B. In addition, the EPSCs were suppressed by the fast sodium channel blocker tetrodotoxin (TTX) and were dependent upon external calcium. However, despite being TTX-sensitive and calcium dependent, there was no evidence that the EPSPs resulted from an increase in impulse flow in excitatory neuronal afferents to layer V pyramidal cells. The EPSCs could be induced rapidly by the microiontophoresis of 5-HT directly to "hot spots" within the apical (but not basilar) dendritic field of recorded neurons, indicating that excitatory amino acids may be released by a TTX-sensitive focal action of 5-HT on a subset of glutamatergic terminals in this region. Consistent with such a presynaptic action, the inhibitory metabotropic glutamate receptor agonist (1S,3S)-aminocyclopentane-1,3-dicarboxylate markedly reduced the induction of EPSPs by 5-HT. Postsynaptically, 5-HT enhanced a subthreshold TTX-sensitive sodium current, potentially contributing to an amplification of EPSC amplitudes. These data suggest 5-HT. via 5-HT2A receptors, enhances spontaneous EPSPs/EPSCs in neocortical layer V pyramidal cells through a TTX-sensitive focal action in the apical dendritic field which may involve both pre- and postsynaptic mechanisms.