Changes in the kinetic properties of voltage-activated sodium currents (I(Na)) were studied in rat retinal ganglion cells during in vivo differentiation. Whole-cell recordings from cells maintained as retinal slices or whole-mounts were examined using the patch-clamp technique in the perforated patch mode. Voltage-clamp recordings revealed significant ontogenetic modifications in key properties of I(Na) and the present study described for the first time the detailed time course of such alterations. I(Na) was first expressed on embryonic day 17/18 (E17/18). Current density increased during development from an average of -81 pA/pF on E17/18 to a maximum of -747pA/pF on postnatal day 10/12 (P10/12). Simultaneously, the activation of I(Na) shifted towards more negative potentials, reflected by a shift in the potential of half-activation from -14.1 mV on E17/18 to - 37.5 mV on P10/12. No significant changes in these parameters were observed after P10/12. Steady-state inactivation shifted first towards more positive potentials, reflected by a shift in the potential of half-inactivation from -51 mV on E17/18 to -38 mV on P3/5, but shifted back towards more negative values thereafter (-44 mV in the adult). The most striking feature of I(Na) in rat RGCs was a transient slowing of I(Na) kinetics that was never described before. Time to peak and decay time constants increased between E20 and P5, resulting in slow and broad sodium currents within a developmental period that is characterized by intensive synaptogenesis in the target structures of retinal ganglion cells and maximum retinal ganglion cell death. Thereafter, time to peak and decay time constants decreased again to values found before E20, resulting in rapid sodium spikes. In conclusion, sodium currents in rat retinal ganglion cells displayed substantial electrophysiological changes during pre- and postnatal development. These changes in the sodium system had different temporal time patterns, indicating that they may play specific roles during the development of the visual system.