GABA emerges as a trophic signal during rat neocortical development in which it modulates proliferation of neuronal progenitors in the ventricular/subventricular zone (VZ/SVZ) and mediates radial migration of neurons from the VZ/SVZ to the cortical plate/subplate (CP/SP) region. In this study we investigated the role of GABA in the earliest phases of neuronal differentiation in the CP/SP. GABAergic-signaling components emerging during neuronal lineage progression were comprehensively characterized using flow cytometry and immunophenotyping together with physiological indicator dyes. During migration from the VZ/SVZ to the CP/SP, differentiating cortical neurons became predominantly GABAergic, and their dominant GABA(A) receptor subunit expression pattern changed from alpha4beta1gamma1 to alpha3beta3gamma2gamma3 coincident with an increasing potency of GABA on GABA(A) receptor-mediated depolarization. GABA(A) autoreceptor/Cl(-) channel activity in cultured CP/SP neurons dominated their baseline potential and indirectly their cytosolic Ca(2+) (Ca(2+)c) levels via Ca(2+) entry through L-type Ca(2+) channels. Block of this autocrine circuit at the level of GABA synthesis, GABA(A) receptor activation, intracellular Cl(-) ion homeostasis, or L-type Ca(2+) channels attenuated neurite outgrowth in most GABAergic CP/SP neurons. In the absence of autocrine GABAergic signaling, neuritogenesis could be preserved by depolarizing cells and elevating Ca(2+)c. These results reveal a morphogenic role for GABA during embryonic neocortical neuron development that involves GABA(A) autoreceptors and L-type Ca(2+) channels.