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Cortical information processing is under state-dependent control of subcortical neuromodulatory systems. Although this modulatory effect is thought to be mediated mainly by slow nonsynaptic metabotropic receptors, other mechanisms, such as direct synaptic transmission, are possible. Yet, it is currently unknown if any such form of subcortical control exists. Here, we present direct evidence of a strong, spatiotemporally precise excitatory input from an ascending neuromodulatory center. Selective stimulation of serotonergic median raphe neurons produced a rapid activation of hippocampal interneurons. At the network level, this subcortical drive was manifested as a pattern of effective disynaptic GABAergic inhibition that spread throughout the circuit. This form of subcortical network regulation should be incorporated into current concepts of normal and pathological cortical function.