The frequency of spontaneous activity recorded from lumbar dorsal roots and the lumbar dorsal horn of isolated spinal cord preparations taken from hamsters aged between 2 days to 8 weeks showed an age dependent sensitivity to 1 mM Mg2+ and 5 microM AP5. Spontaneous dorsal root and dorsal horn activity in cords from animals less than 3 weeks of age was depressed by 1 mM Mg2+ and 5 microM AP5. Cords taken from animals older than 3 weeks showed significantly less depression of spontaneous activity. The application of 10 microM NMDA to the cord produced a small (33%) depression in spontaneous dorsal root and dorsal horn activity in cords from 4 to 6 week old animals. Cords from younger animals exhibited a complex response to NMDA, with an initial increase in spontaneous activity followed by a profound (77%) depression of the firing rate. These results indicate that there are substantial changes taking place in the pharmacology of the dorsal horn during the early weeks of life, and care must be exercised when extrapolating results obtained from neonatal preparations to adult animals.