Transfection of cultured hippocampal slices for five days with antisense oligonucleotides directed against mRNA encoding calpain I resulted in an approximately 60% decrease in the amount of caseinolytic activity stimulated by 10 microM calcium. Increases in a single proteolytic fragment of spectrin produced by 10-20 min of NMDA receptor stimulation were substantially (approximately 50%) reduced in antisense treated slices; this effect was not obtained in slices exposed to NMDA for 45 min. Attenuation of NMDA receptor-induced spectrin proteolysis by the antisense oligonucleotides was confirmed in immunoassays using antibodies that recognize multiple spectrin breakdown products and in immunocytochemical experiments with an antibody that detects an individual calpain I-mediated fragment. Translational suppression of calpain I did not detectably affect evoked synaptic responses but markedly improved their recovery from a 15 min infusion of NMDA. These results indicate that spectrin breakdown products provide a useful index of in situ calpain I activity and support the hypothesis that the protease plays a significant role in excitotoxicity.