We investigated membrane electrophysiological features of dissociated vestibular ganglion neurons, using a voltage-sensitive dye and a multiple site optical imaging system. The neuronal nature of the cultured vestibular ganglion cells was confirmed by positive staining with the anti-neurofilament 200 kDa antibody, using immunocytochemical methods. Optical absorption of the dye which binds to the external surface of neuron membranes increased while the cells were depolarized during perfusion with 150 mM potassium solution. The relative ratio (deltaI/I) of optical absorption change was 0.23 +/- 0.08% (means +/- S.D., n = 16). These optical responses were wavelength dependent, therefore, the optical response apparently originated from the voltage-sensitive dye. Under our experimental conditions, photodynamic damage and pharmacological effects of the dye were either absent or insignificant. We therefore concluded that optical recording is a new, practical and non-invasive method to simultaneously monitor changes in membrane potential from cultured vestibular ganglion cells. Optical recording is expected to provide further insight into mechanisms of information processing by vestibular ganglion neurons.