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In vivo, most vasopressin cells of the hypothalamic supraoptic nucleus fire action potentials in a ‘phasic’ pattern when the systemic osmotic pressure is elevated, while most oxytocin cells fire continuously. The phasic firing pattern is believed to arise as a consequence of intrinsic activity-dependent changes in membrane potential, and these have been extensively studied in vitro. Here we analysed the discharge patterning of supraoptic nucleus neurones in vivo, to infer the characteristics of the post-spike sequence of hyperpolarization and depolarization from the observed spike patterning. We then compared patterning in phasic cells in vivo and in vitro, and we found systematic differences in the interspike interval distributions, and in other statistical parameters that characterized activity patterns within bursts. Analysis of hazard functions (probability of spike initiation as a function of time since the preceding spike) revealed that phasic firing in vitro appears consistent with a regenerative process arising from a relatively slow, late depolarizing afterpotential that approaches or exceeds spike threshold. By contrast, in vivo activity appears to be dominated by stochastic rather than deterministic mechanisms, and appears consistent with a relatively early and fast depolarizing afterpotential that modulates the probability that random synaptic input exceeds spike threshold. Despite superficial similarities in the phasic firing patterns observed in vivo and in vitro, there are thus fundamental differences in the underlying mechanisms.