Neurons in the mammalian pretectum are involved in the control of various visual and oculomotor tasks. Because functionally independent pretectal cell populations show a wide variation of response types to visual stimulation in vivo, they may also differ in their intrinsic properties when recorded in vitro. We therefore performed whole-cell patch clamp recordings from neurons in the caudal third of the pretectal nuclear complex in frontal brain slices obtained from 3 to 6 week old hooded rats and tried to classify pretectal neurons electrophysiologically. Pretectal neurons showed various response types to intracellular depolarizations, including bursting and regular firing behavior. One population of pretectal nuclear complex neurons could be particularly distinguished from others because they displayed spontaneous activity in vitro. These cells had more positive resting potentials and higher input resistances than cells that were not spontaneously active. The maintained firing of spontaneously active pretectal cells was characterized by only small variances in interspike intervals and thus showed a regular temporal patterning. The firing rate was directly correlated to the membrane potential. Removing excitatory inputs by blockade of AMPA and/or NMDA receptors did not change the spontaneous activity. Simultaneous blockade of excitatory and inhibitory synaptic input by a substitution of extracellular calcium with cobalt neither changed the firing rate nor its temporal patterning. Each action potential was preceeded by a depolarizing inward current which was insensitive to calcium removal but which disappeared in the presence of tetrodotoxin. Our results indicate that a specific subpopulation of pretectal neurons is capable of generating maintained activity in the absence of any external synaptic input. This maintained activity depends on a sodium conductance and is independent from calcium currents.