Synaptic inhibition in the thalamus plays critical roles in sensory processing and thalamocortical rhythm generation. To determine kinetic, pharmacological, and structural properties of thalamic gamma-aminobutyric acid type A (GABA(A)) receptors, we used patch-clamp techniques and single-cell reverse transcriptase polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) in neurons from two principal rat thalamic nuclei-the reticular nucleus (nRt) and the ventrobasal (VB) complex. Single-channel recordings identified GABA(A) channels with densities threefold higher in VB than nRt neurons, and with mean open time fourfold longer for nRt than VB [14.6 +/- 2.5 vs. 3.8 +/- 0.7 (SE) ms, respectively]. GABA(A) receptors in nRt and VB cells were pharmacologically distinct. Zn(2+) (100 microM) reduced GABA(A) channel activity in VB and nRt by 84 and 24%, respectively. Clonazepam (100 nM) increased inhibitory postsynaptic current (IPSC) decay time constants in nRt (from 44.3 to 77.9 ms, P < 0.01) but not in VB. Single-cell RT-PCR revealed subunit heterogeneity between nRt and VB cells. VB neurons expressed alpha1-alpha3, alpha5, beta1-3, gamma2-3, and delta, while nRt cells expressed alpha3, alpha5, gamma2-3, and delta. Both cell types expressed more subunits than needed for a single receptor type, suggesting the possibility of GABA(A) receptor heterogeneity within individual thalamic neurons. beta subunits were not detected in nRt cells, which is consistent with very low levels reported in previous in situ hybridization studies but inconsistent with the expected dependence of functional GABA(A) receptors on beta subunits. Different single-channel open times likely underlie distinct IPSC decay time constants in VB and nRt cells. While we can make no conclusion regarding beta subunits, our findings do support alpha subunits, possibly alpha1 versus alpha3, as structural determinants of channel deactivation kinetics and clonazepam sensitivity. As the gamma2 and delta subunits previously implicated in Zn(2+) sensitivity are both expressed in each cell type, the observed differential Zn(2+) actions at VB versus nRt GABA(A) receptors may involve other subunit differences.