The role of histamine in regulating excitability of sympathetic preganglionic neurons (SPNs) and the expression of histamine receptor mRNA in SPNs was investigated using whole-cell patch-clamp electrophysiological recording techniques combined with single-cell reverse transcriptase polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) in transverse neonatal rat spinal cord slices. Bath application of histamine (100 microM) or the H1 receptor agonist histamine trifluoromethyl toluidide dimaleate (HTMT; 10 microM) induced membrane depolarization associated with a decrease in membrane conductance in the majority (70%) of SPNs tested, via activation of postsynaptic H1 receptors negatively coupled to one or more unidentified K+ conductances. Histamine and HTMT application also induced or increased the amplitude and/or frequency of membrane potential oscillations in electrotonically coupled SPNs. The H2 receptor agonist dimaprit (10 microM) or the H3 receptor agonist imetit (100 nM) were without significant effect on the membrane properties of SPNs. Histamine responses were sensitive to the H1 receptor antagonist triprolidine (10 microM) and the nonselective potassium channel blocker barium (1 mM) but were unaffected by the H2 receptor antagonist tiotidine (10 microM) and the H3 receptor antagonist, clobenpropit (5 microM). Single cell RT-PCR revealed mRNA expression for H1 receptors in 75% of SPNs tested, with no expression of mRNA for H2, H3, or H4 receptors. These data represent the first demonstration of H1 receptor expression in SPNs and suggest that histamine acts to regulate excitability of these neurons via a direct postsynaptic effect on H1 receptors.