Mg2+ decreased basal and GABA-inhibited t-butylbicyclophosphoro[35S]thionate binding to GABAA receptor ion channels in rat brain sections up to 1 mM, but increased the binding at 10 mM. The Mg2+-effect was detectable in the presence of a specific GABA site competitive antagonist. Two-electrode voltage clamp recordings of recombinant alpha1beta2gamma2S, alpha1beta2, alpha2beta2gamma2S and alpha2beta2 GABAA receptors revealed a potentiation by 0.1-1 mM Mg2+ of EC20 GABA-evoked ion currents. At 10 mM, Mg2+ decreased the currents. In the absence of GABA, Mg2+ did not evoke any currents. The results show that physiologically relevant Mg2+ concentrations affect the GABA responses on GABAA receptors in native and the main recombinant receptor subtypes, suggesting putative Mg2+ binding sites on the receptor complex.