1. Neurons of the chick nucleus magnocellularis (NM) receive depolarizing GABAergic input from the superior olivary nucleus (SON). We examined the response to exogenous GABA or to stimulation of GABAergic fibres in order to identify the ionic basis of GABAergic synaptic transmission and its physiological implications. 2. Reversal potentials of GABA responses (E(GABA)) were determined exclusively by the Cl(-) gradient, measured using whole-cell recording. With gramicidin-perforated patch recording, E(GABA) was -25 +/- 5 mV (mean +/- S.D.), and was stable between embryonic day 17 and post-hatch day 10. With normal intracellular Cl(-), GABA depolarized neurons by 12 mV. 3. In current clamp, repetitive activation of the GABAergic axons reduced the probability of spiking in response to simultaneous stimulation of excitatory axons. However, IPSPs could themselves elicit action potentials, and facilitation of IPSPs by repetitive activation could lead to a characteristic pattern of spiking. 4. These data indicate that IPSPs with reversal potentials positive to spike threshold may have dual functions, depending on the context of their activation.