Endogenous calcium-activated proteases, the calpains, are thought to play a role in the regulation of postsynaptic function. Here we characterize some biochemical and morphological effects of calpain on isolated postsynaptic densities (PSDs). When a PSD preparation from rat forebrain was treated with exogenous calpain, many proteins, including spectrin, tubulin and the alpha-subunit of calcium calmodulin-dependent protein kinase (alpha-CaM kinase), were proteolyzed at varying rates, while another major protein, actin, remained intact. The selectivity of calpain action became more apparent in experiments designed to achieve limited proteolysis by using a lower calpain-to-protein ratio; it was possible to obtain extensive breakdown of spectrin with no decrease in the levels of either tubulin, alpha-CaM kinase, or actin. Electron microscopy of freeze-substituted preparations showed that limited calpain action caused a partial unraveling of the PSD, in which the characteristic central dense lamina became wider and less dense. We interpret these changes as due to calpain-mediated breakdown of cross-bridging elements, leading to a partial unraveling of the central PSD lamina. Opening up of the PSD structure following limited calpain action could facilitate exposure of previously occluded functional sites within the PSD and contribute to the modification of the synaptic function.