Temperature responses of anterior hypothalamic neurons are considered key elements in the regulation of the temperature setpoint of homeotherms. We have investigated the sensitivity to warming of cultured neurons of the AH from mice with electrophysiological and immunocytochemical techniques. In control experiments, only approximately 9% of the 3- to 5-week-old cells exhibited changes of their basic firing rate when the temperature was raised from 37 degrees C to 40 degrees C. This ratio was increased to 27% after the cultures were "primed" by adding prostaglandin E2 (PGE2), an endogenous pyrogen, in the extracellular medium. In these neurons the firing rate was significantly increased, and the frequency of the gamma gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) inhibitory postsynaptic potentials was markedly decreased. In contrast, the resting potential and membrane resistance of the recorded cells remained unchanged. PGE2 was found to decrease the level of phosphorylation of the extracellular signal-regulated kinases 1 and 2 in a subset of GABAergic neurons that express the E-prostanoid receptor type 3. Inhibition of ERK1/2 by U0126 mimicked the effects of PGE2. These data indicate that PGE2 acts primarily on the excitability of GABAergic presynaptic cells, most likely via alterations of voltage-gated K+ channels. Our results also suggest that far from being an inherent property of a specialized class of neurons, the degree of thermosensitivity can be strongly modulated by synaptic activity and is a more adaptive property of hypothalamic neurons than previously thought.