A novel in vitro preparation, consisting of the rat brainstem with the trigeminal ganglion attached, has been used to study the anatomical and functional development of the trigeminal nucleus from embryonic day (E)13 to postnatal day (P)6. Neurobiotin injections into the trigeminal ganglion showed that primary afferents had reached the trigeminal tract by E13 and had grown simple, mainly unbranched, collaterals into all levels of the nucleus by E15. By E17, these collaterals were extensively branched, with occasional boutons present. Patches of intense neurobiotin-labelled terminals, corresponding to whisker-related patterns, were first seen at E20 and became clearer over the next few days. Terminal arbours at this stage were relatively localized and densely branched, with many boutons. Responses from the trigeminal nucleus were recorded with suction electrodes, following stimulation of the trigeminal ganglion. Recordings from the main sensory nucleus showed a postsynaptic response was first present at E15. At E16, bath application of AP5 and DNQX showed that the response contained both NMDA and AMPA components, with NMDA predominating (75%). The NMDA : AMPA ratio remained high until P1, then gradually declined to 50% by P6. The postsynaptic response was also reduced by bath application of bicuculline, indicating the presence of a GABAA-mediated excitatory component. GABAergic excitation was present at all ages but was maximal from E20 to P1, the age at which whisker-related patterns are developing. It is hypothesized that both GABAergic excitation and NMDA receptor activation play a role in the consolidation of trigeminal connections, and are thus important in the development of whisker-related patterns.