The effect of the novel GABAc receptor antagonist (1,2,5,6-tetrahydropyridine-4-yl)methyl-phosphinic acid (TPMPA) on synaptic transmission and GABA-mediated responses was investigated with electrophysiological recordings from the in vitro spinal cord preparation of the neonatal rat. Bath-applied TPMPA (10 microM) had no effect on spinal reflexes evoked by dorsal root stimulation, on ventral root polarization level or amplitude of ventral root depolarizations induced by exogenously applied GABA (0.5 mM). TPMPA significantly attenuated the depressant action of GABA on spinal reflexes without changing responses induced by the GABA(A) receptor agonist isoguvacine (50 microM) or the GABA(B) receptor agonist baclofen (0.5-2 microM). Following block of GABA(A) receptors by bicuculline (20 microM) and of glycine receptors by strychnine (1 microM), regular bursting activity recorded from ventral roots developed spontaneously and persisted unchanged for many hours. This bursting pattern, which is generated at the level of the interneuronal network, was significantly slowed down by TPMPA, which also increased the duration of individual bursts and the number of intraburst oscillations. These results suggest that in the neonatal rat spinal cord some functional GABAc receptors exist: their role was clearly unmasked following pharmacological block of GABA(A) (and glycine) receptors. Under these conditions GABAc receptors appeared to contribute to the excitation of spinal interneurons supporting rhythmic bursting activity.