The effects of chronic exposure to moderate concentrations of ethanol were studied in cultured hippocampal neurons. Network activity, assessed by imaging of [Ca(2+)]i variations, was markedly suppressed following 5 days of exposure to 0.25-1% ethanol. The reduced activity was sustained following extensive washout of ethanol, but the activity recovered by blockade of inhibition with bicuculline. This reduction of network activity was associated with a reduction in rates of mEPSCs, but not in a change in inhibitory synaptic activity. Chronic exposure to ethanol caused a significant reduction in the density of mature dendritic spines, without an effect on dendritic length or arborization. These results indicate that chronic exposure to ethanol causes a reduction in excitatory network drive in hippocampal neurons adding another dimension to the chronic effects of alcohol abuse.