The interactions among excitatory inputs arising from the prefrontal cortex, amygdala, and hippocampus, and innervating nucleus accumbens neurons were studied using in vivo intracellular recording techniques. Neurons recorded in the accumbens displayed one of three activity states: (1) silent, (2) spontaneously firing at low, constant rates, or (3) a bistable membrane potential, characterized by alternating periods of activity and silence occurring in concert with spontaneous transitions between two steady-state membrane potentials (average, - 77.3 +/- 7.1 mV base, -63.0 +/- 7.4 mV plateau). These neurons also exhibited a high degree of convergence of responses elicited by stimulation of each of the three excitatory inputs tested. Activation of hippocampal afferents, but not cortical, amygdaloid, or thalamic afferents, induced bistable cells to switch to the depolarized (active) state. In contrast, no bistable cells were encountered in the nucleus accumbens following an acute transection of the fornix. Furthermore, microinjection of lidocaine in the vicinity of the hippocampal afferents at the level of the fornix caused a reversible elimination of the plateau phase in bistable cells. These data suggest that hippocampal input is necessary for accumbens neurons to enter a depolarized, active state. Furthermore, activation of prefrontal cortical inputs fail to evoke spike firing in accumbens neurons unless they are in this active state. Consequently, the hippocampus appears to be capable of gating prefrontal corticoaccumbens throughput.