Effects of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) in area CA3, the dentate gyrus, and medial entorhinal cortex were examined electrophysiologically by bath application of BDNF in slices containing the hippocampus and entorhinal cortex. Bath application of 25-100 ng/ml BDNF for 30-90 min increased responses to single afferent stimuli in selective pathways in the majority of slices. In area CA3, responses to mossy fiber stimulation increased in 73% of slices and entorhinal cortex responses to white matter stimulation increased in 64% of slices. After exposure to BDNF, these areas also demonstrated evidence of hyperexcitability, because responses to repetitive stimulation (1-Hz paired pulses for several s) produced multiple population spikes in response to mossy fiber stimulation in CA3 or multiple field potentials in response to white matter stimulation in the entorhinal cortex. Repetitive field potentials persisted after repetitive stimulation ended and usually were followed by spreading depression. Enhancement of responses to single stimuli and hyperexcitability were never evoked in untreated slices or after bath application of boiled BDNF or cytochrome C. The tyrosine kinase antagonist K252a (2 microM) blocked the effects of BDNF. In area CA3, both the potentiation of responses to single stimuli and hyperexcitability showed afferent specificity, because responses to mossy fiber stimulation were affected but responses to fimbria or Schaffer collateral stimulation were not. In addition, regional specificity was demonstrated in that the dentate gyrus was much less affected. The effects of BDNF in area CA3 were similar to those produced by bath application of low doses of kainic acid, which is thought to modulate glutamate release from mossy fiber terminals by a presynaptic action. These results suggest that BDNF has acute effects on excitability in different areas of the hippocampal-entorhinal circuit. These effects appear to be greatest in areas that are highly immunoreactive for BDNF, such as the mossy fibers and the entorhinal cortex. Although the present experiments do not elucidate mechanism(s) definitively, the afferent specificity, similarity to the effects of kainic acid, and block by K252a are consistent with previous hypotheses that BDNF affects acute excitability by a presynaptic action on trkB receptors that modulate excitatory amino acid transmission. However, we cannot rule out actions on inhibitory synapses or postsynaptic processes.