Rises in corticosteroid levels, e.g. after acute stress, impair synaptic plasticity in the rat hippocampus when compared with the situation where levels are basal, i.e. under rest. We here addressed the question whether basal and raised levels of corticosterone affect synaptic plasticity similarly in animals that experienced chronic stress prior to corticosterone application. To this end, rats were exposed to a 21-day variable stress paradigm. Synaptic plasticity was examined in vitro in the dentate gyrus and CA1 hippocampal region, 24 h after exposure to the last stressor, i.e. when corticosterone levels are basal (low). First we observed that long-term potentiation was greatly impaired in both CA1 and dentate gyrus after 3 weeks of exposure to variable stress, when recorded under conditions where plasma corticosterone levels are low. Second, administration of 100 nm corticosterone in vitro reduced synaptic plasticity in CA1 of control rats, but induced no further impairment of synaptic plasticity in chronically stressed rats. Third, in the dentate gyrus, corticosterone incubation did not affect synaptic plasticity in slices from both control and stressed animals. We conclude that: (i) exposure to chronic variable stress per se reduces synaptic plasticity both in CA1 and dentate gyrus; and (ii) acute rises in corticosterone level induce no additional impairment of synaptic plasticity in the CA1 region of chronically stressed rats. It is tempting to speculate that the stress-induced reduction of hippocampal efficacy provides a cellular substrate for cognitive deficits in hippocampus-dependent learning tasks seen after prolonged exposure to stressful events.