The effect of serotonin (5-HT) on somatic and dendritic properties was analyzed in pyramidal neurons from the CA1 region in slices from the rat hippocampus. Bath-applied 5-HT (10 microM) hyperpolarized the soma and apical dendrites and caused a conductance increase at both locations. In the dendrites (200-300 microm from the soma) trains of antidromically activated, backpropagating action potentials had lower peak potentials in 5-HT than in normal artificial cerebrospinal fluid. Spike amplitudes were about the same in the two solutions. Similar results were found when the action potentials were evoked synaptically with stimulation in the stratum oriens. In the soma, spike amplitudes increased in 5-HT, with only a small decrease in the peak potential. Calcium concentration measurements, made with bis-fura-2 injected through patch electrodes, showed that the amplitude of the [Ca2+]i changes was reduced at all locations in 5-HT. The reduction of the [Ca2+]i change in the soma was confirmed in slices where cells were loaded with fura-2-AM. The reduction at the soma in 5-HT, where the spike amplitude increased, suggests that the reduction is due primarily to direct modulation of Ca2+ channels. In the dendrites, the reduction is due to a combination of this channel modulation and the lowering of the peak potential of the action potentials.