Modified explant cultures derived from the cortical region of fetal rat cerebellum, and extracellular recording techniques were used to examine the sensitivity and response of cerebellar neurons, isolated from extracerebellar afferent input, to acute ethanol (EtOH) exposure. Recordings were made from Purkinje neurons (PNs) and granule cells maintained in culture for several weeks, with the emphasis on the PN. Both the PNs and granule cells exhibited spontaneous activity in culture, but, unlike the PNs, not all of the granule cells were spontaneously active. The majority of PNs studied exhibited a high frequency, regular simple spike firing pattern, previously shown to be endogenously generated by voltage-sensitive mechanisms intrinsic to the PN. The granule cells exhibited slow, irregular patterns of activity. EtOH at doses as low as 22 mM (100 mg%), a concentration that reflects blood levels during EtOH intoxication, altered the spontaneous activity of both neuronal types, demonstrating that EtOH has direct actions on cerebellar neurons. In the PNs, acute EtOH (20-80 mM) produced an increase in the regularity of the spontaneous activity and either a transient increase or no change in firing rate. Acute EtOH also significantly altered the response of PNs to the excitatory transmitter glutamate. In the granule cells, acute EtOH altered firing pattern with small and variable effects on firing rate. These data demonstrate that there are multiple sites of EtOH action in the cerebellum and that changes in PN activity with acute EtOH exposure may occur via direct actions on the PN and indirect actions via synaptically connected cerebellar neurons. The demonstration of EtOH-sensitive sites intrinsic to the cerebellum suggests that EtOH actions at these sites contribute to alterations in PN activity that occur in vivo after acute EtOH exposure.