The mechanism by which sex steroids rapidly modulate the excitability of neurons was investigated by intracellular recording of neurons in rat medial amygdala brain slices. Brief hyperpolarization and increased potassium conductance were produced by 17 beta-estradiol. This effect persisted after elimination of synaptic input and after suppression of protein synthesis. Thus, 17 beta-estradiol directly changes the ionic conductance of the postsynaptic membrane of medial amygdala neurons. In addition, a greater proportion of the neurons from females than from males responded to 17 beta-estradiol.