Although extracellular Zn(2+) is an endogenous biphasic modulator of strychnine-sensitive glycine receptors (GlyRs), the physiological significance of this modulation remains poorly understood. Zn(2+) modulation of GlyR may be especially important in the hippocampus where presynaptic Zn(2+) is abundant. Using cultured embryonic mouse hippocampal neurons, we examined whether 1 microM Zn(2+), a potentiating concentration, enhances the inhibitory effects of GlyRs activated by sustained glycine applications. Sustained 20 microM glycine (EC(25)) applications alone did not decrease the number of action potentials evoked by depolarizing steps, but they did in 1 microM Zn(2+). At least part of this effect resulted from Zn(2+) enhancing the GlyR-induced decrease in input resistance. Sustained 20 microM glycine applications alone did not alter neuronal bursting, a form of hyperexcitability induced by omitting extracellular Mg(2+). However, sustained 20 microM glycine applications depressed neuronal bursting in 1 microM Zn(2+). Zn(2+) did not enhance the inhibitory effects of sustained 60 microM glycine (EC(70)) applications in these paradigms. These results suggest that tonic GlyR activation could decrease neuronal excitability. To test this possibility, we examined the effect of the GlyR antagonist strychnine and the Zn(2+) chelator tricine on action potential firing by CA1 pyramidal neurons in mouse hippocampal slices. Co-applying strychnine and tricine slightly but significantly increased the number of action potentials fired during a depolarizing current step and decreased the rheobase for action potential firing. Thus Zn(2+) may modulate neuronal excitability normally and in pathological conditions such as seizures by potentiating GlyRs tonically activated by low agonist concentrations.