Neuronal migration disorders (NMD) are involved in a variety of different developmental disturbances and in therapy-resistant epilepsy. The cellular mechanisms underlying the pronounced hyperexcitability in dysplastic cortex are not well understood and demand further clinical and experimental analyses. We used a focal freeze-lesion model in cerebral cortex of newborn rats to study the functional consequences of NMD. Intracellular recordings from supragranular regular spiking cells in cortical slices from adult sham-operated rats revealed normal passive and active intrinsic membrane properties and normal stimulus-evoked excitatory and inhibitory postsynaptic potentials (EPSPs and IPSPs, respectively). Regular spiking neurons recorded in rat dysplastic cortex showed on average a significantly smaller action potential amplitude, a slower spike rise, and a less steep primary frequency-current relationship. Stimulus-elicited EPSPs in NMD-affected cortex consisted of multiphasic burst discharges, which coincided with extracellular field potentials and lasted 150-800 ms. These epileptiform responses could be recorded at membrane potentials between -50 and -110 mV and were blocked by -2-amino-5-phosphonovaleric acid (APV), indicating the involvement of N-methyl--aspartate (NMDA) receptors. Isolated NMDA-mediated and APV-sensitive EPSPs could be recorded at membrane potentials negative to -70 mV, suggesting that NMDA receptors are activated at relatively negative membrane potentials. In comparison with the controls, polysynaptic IPSPs mediated by the gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) type A and B receptor were either absent or reduced in peak conductance in microgyric cortex by 27% (P < 0.05) and 17%, respectively. However, monosynaptic IPSPs recorded in the presence of ionotropic glutamate receptor antagonists revealed a similar efficacy in NMD and control cortex, indicating that GABAergic neurons in microgyric cortex get a weaker excitatory input. Our data indicate that the expression of epileptiform activity in NMD-affected cortex rather results from an imbalance between excitatory and inhibitory synaptic transmission than from alterations in the intrinsic membrane properties. This imbalance is caused by an increase in NMDA-receptor-mediated excitation in pyramidal neurons and a concurrent decrease of glutamatergic input onto inhibitory interneurons.