1. Whole-cell patch clamp and intracellular recordings were obtained from 190 sympathetic preganglionic neurones (SPNs) in spinal cord slices of neonatal rats. Fifty-two of these SPNs were identified histologically as innervating the superior cervical ganglion (SCG) by the presence of Lucifer Yellow introduced from the patch pipette and the appearance of retrograde labelling following the injection of rhodamine-dextran-lysine into the SCG. 2. Electrical stimulation of the ipsilateral (n = 71) or contralateral (n = 32) lateral funiculi (iLF and cLF, respectively), contralateral intermediolateral nucleus (cIML, n = 41) or ipsilateral dorsal horn (DH, n = 34) evoked EPSPs or EPSCs that showed a constant latency and rise time, graded response to increased stimulus intensity, and no failures, suggesting a monosynaptic origin. 3. In all neurones tested (n = 60), fast rising and decaying components of EPSPs or EPSCs evoked from the iLF, cLF, cIML and DH in response to low-frequency stimulation (0.03-0.1 Hz) were sensitive to non-NMDA receptor antagonists. 4. In approximately 50 % of neurones tested (n = 29 of 60), EPSPs and EPSCs evoked from the iLF, cLF, cIML and DH during low-frequency stimulation were reduced by NMDA receptor antagonists. In the remaining neurones, an NMDA receptor antagonist-sensitive EPSP or EPSC was revealed only in magnesium-free bathing medium, or following high-frequency stimulation. 5. EPSPs evoked by stimulation of the iLF exhibited a sustained potentiation of the peak amplitude (25.3 +/- 11.4 %) in six of fourteen SPNs tested following a brief high-frequency stimulus (10-20 Hz, 0.1-2 s). 6. These results indicate that SPNs, including SPNs innervating the SCG, receive monosynaptic connections from both sides of the spinal cord. The neurotransmitter mediating transmission in some of the pathways activated by stimulation of iLF, cLF, cIML and DH is glutamate acting via both NMDA and non-NMDA receptors. Synaptic plasticity is a feature of glutamatergic transmission in some SPNs where EPSPs are potentiated following a brief high-frequency stimulus. Our data also suggest a differential expression of NMDA receptors by these neurones.