Dopamine (DA) was applied to CA1 region pyramidal cells in slices of guinea pig hippocampus maintained in vitro in order to examine its electrophysiological effect on CNS neurons. DA induced hyperpolarization of membrane potential and an increased conductance in 75% the 21 CA1 neurons to which it was applied. DA also augmented the afterhyperpolarizations and increased conductance which normally follow spike trains in these neurons. These effects were not altered by intracellular injections of Cl- but were blocked when slices were bathed in Mn2+ solutions. The Mn2+ blockade of DA-induced hyperpolarizations could be overcome when large amounts of agonists were applied. The DA effects were long lasting, were mimicked by the dopamine agonists apomorphine and Epinine, and were blocked by the dopamine antagonists flupenthixol and chlorpromazine. Extracellular or intracellular application of cyclic AMP mimicked the effects of DA. The results suggest that DA-induced hyperpolarization and conductance changes are mediated by a Ca2+-activated K+ conductance. DA may increase the intracellular Ca2+ concentration through effects on one of the Ca2+ buffering mechanisms. The long duration of these effects suggest that DA works though some intracellular intermediary, perhaps cyclic AMP, considering that the actions of cyclic AMP on membrane properties are similar to those of DA. The dopaminergic projection to the hippocampus should have a powerful inhibitory action, which would be most effective in modulating the activities of neurons exhibiting high levels of excitability, particularly cells involved in cyclical burst generation.