Cu(2+)-ions are known to interfere with gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA)- and glutamate-operated ion channels from experiments with isolated neurons. Such actions are likely involved in the pathophysiology of Wilson's disease. We have now studied the effects of Cu2+ in the CA1 region of hippocampal slices. Field excitatory postsynaptic potential (EPSP) slopes in the CA1 region were unaffected by 1 microM Cu2+ but were depressed by 10 microM (to 85%) and 100 microM (to 50%). A paired-pulse test revealed no difference in facilitation in the presence or absence of Cu2+, indicating a postsynaptic action. A late component of intracellularly registered EPSPs in Mg(2+)-free solution was also reduced by Cu2+. The N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) component of the field EPSP, isolated by adding CNQX and bicuculline in Mg(2+)-free solution, was reduced to 69% of control by 1 microM and to 50% of control by 10 microM Cu2+. Long-term potentiation, evoked by 3 x 50 pulses at 100 Hz, 20 s interval amounted to 132 +/- 11% 90 min after tetanization under control conditions but was absent in the presence of 1 microM Cu2+ in the bath. Thus low concentrations of copper can selectively reduce NMDA-mediated potentials and synaptic plasticity.