The integrative contribution of cartwheel cells of the dorsal cochlear nucleus (DCN) was assessed with intracellular recordings from anatomically identified cells. Recordings were made, in slices of the cochlear nuclei of mice, from 58 cartwheel cells, 22 fusiform cells, 3 giant cells, 5 tuberculoventral cells, and 1 cell that is either a superficial stellate or Golgi cell. Cartwheel cells can be distinguished electrophysiologically from other cells of the cochlear nuclei by their complex spikes, which comprised two to four rapid action potentials superimposed on a slower depolarization. The rapid action potentials were blocked by tetrodotoxin (n = 17) and were therefore mediated by voltage-sensitive sodium currents. The slow spikes were eliminated by the removal of calcium from the extracellular saline (n = 3) and thus were mediated by voltage-sensitive calcium currents. The spontaneous and evoked firing patterns of cartwheel cells were distinctive. Cartwheel cells usually fired single and complex spikes spontaneously at irregular intervals of between 100 ms and several seconds. Shocks to the DCN elicited firing that lasted tens to hundreds of milliseconds. With the use of these distinctive firing patterns, together with a pharmacological dissection of postsynaptic potentials (PSPs), possible targets of cartwheel cells were identified and the function of the connections was examined. Not only cartwheel and fusiform cells, but also giant cells, received patterns of synaptic input consistent with their having originated from cartwheel cells. These cell types responded to shocks of the DCN with variable trains of PSPs that lasted hundreds of milliseconds. PSPs within these trains appeared both singly and in bursts of two to four, and were blocked by 0.5 or 1 microM strychnine (n = 4 cartwheel, 4 fusiform, and 2 giant cells), indicating that cartwheel cells are likely to be glycinergic. In contrast with cartwheel cells, which are weakly excited by glycinergic input, glycinergic PSPs consistently inhibited fusiform and giant cells. Tuberculoventral cells and the putative superficial stellate cell received little or no spontaneous synaptic activity. Shocks to the DCN evoked synaptic activity that lasted approximately 5 ms. These cells therefore probably do not receive input from cartwheel cells. In addition, the brief firing of tuberculoventral cells and of the putative superficial stellate cell in response to shocks indicates that these cells are unlikely to contribute to the late, glycinergic synaptic potentials observed in cartwheel, fusiform, and giant cells.