Galanin applied in the bath or by micropipette directly on to locus coeruleus neurons in an in vitro slice preparation caused a hyperpolarization accompanied by a small decrease in membrane resistance. Immunohistochemical staining of intracellularly filled neurons indicated that the effect of galanin was exerted on norepinephrine neurons of the locus coeruleus. The galanin effect was variable in amplitude and duration and often showed desensitization, with subsequent applications producing a smaller response. When cells were exposed to tetrodotoxin or tetrodotoxin/low calcium media, the galanin response was still present. Under voltage clamp galanin application caused a net outward current that did not reverse in normal potassium concentrations; however, by increasing extracellular potassium concentrations the net outward current was reversed and the reversal potential shifted to a less negative potential. The response to galanin was identical when either KCl or KAc was used as the intracellular electrode solution. Tetraethylammonium chloride significantly reduced or abolished the response to galanin in most cells, although in a few cells the galanin response was not affected. Glibenclamide, a blocker of ATP-sensitive potassium channels, did not affect the galanin hyperpolarization. In addition, diazoxide had no effect on the membrane properties of locus coeruleus neurons. These results demonstrate that galanin exerts its inhibitory effect in the locus coeruleus via an increase in K+ conductance; however, not via the pancreatic type of ATP-sensitive K+ channels. Cryostat sections of the locus coeruleus incubated in 125I-labeled galanin revealed binding sites in the locus coeruleus at all levels. Sections of the locus coeruleus processed for ultrastructural immunocytochemistry showed galanin immunoreactivity in many neuronal somata and dendritic processes within the nucleus, confirming earlier evidence for the coexistence of galanin and noradrenaline in locus coeruleus neurons. Galanin-immunoreactive soma and dendrites in the locus coeruleus less frequently received galanin-immunoreactive synapses of axonal origin. These findings suggest that endogenous galanin in the locus coeruleus is mainly released from noradrenaline galanin somata and/or dendrites to act on autoreceptors or on receptors on adjacent neurons.