In some nerve cells, activation of GABA(A) receptors by GABA results in phasic and tonic conductances. Transient activation of synaptic receptors generates phasic inhibition, whereas tonic inhibition originates from GABA acting on extrasynaptic receptors, like in cerebellar granule cells, where it is thought to result from the activation of extrasynaptic GABA(A) receptors with a specific subunit composition (alpha(6)beta(x)delta). Here we show that in adult rat hippocampal slices, extracellular GABA levels are sufficiently high to generate a powerful tonic inhibition in delta subunit-expressing dentate gyrus granule cells. In these cells, the mean tonic current is approximately four times larger than that produced by spontaneous synaptic currents occurring at a frequency of approximately 10 Hz. Antagonizing the GABA transporter GAT-1 with NO-711 (2.5 microM) selectively enhanced tonic inhibition by 330% without affecting the phasic component. In contrast, by prolonging the decay of inhibitory postsynaptic currents (IPSCs), the benzodiazepine agonist zolpidem (0.5 microM) augmented phasic inhibition by 66%, while leaving the mean tonic conductance unchanged. These results demonstrate that a tonic GABA(A) receptor-mediated conductance can be recorded from dentate gyrus granule cells of adult rats in in vitro slice preparations. Furthermore, we have identified distinct pharmacological tools to selectively modify tonic and phasic inhibitions, allowing future studies to investigate their specific roles in neuronal function.