The activation properties of GABA(A) receptors containing alpha4beta2gamma2 and alpha4beta2delta subunits were examined in the presence of GABA or pentobarbital. The receptors were expressed transiently in HEK 293 cells, and the electrophysiological experiments were carried out using cell-attached single-channel patch clamp or whole-cell macroscopic recordings. The data show that GABA is a stronger activator of alpha4beta2gamma2 receptors than alpha4beta2delta receptors. Single-channel clusters were recorded from alpha4beta2gamma2 receptors in the presence of 10-5000 microm GABA. The maximal intracluster open probability was 0.35, with a half-maximal response elicited by 32 microm GABA. Simultaneous kinetic analysis of single-channel currents obtained at various GABA concentrations yields a channel opening rate constant of 250 s(-1), and a K(D) of 20 microm. In contrast, only isolated openings were observed in the presence of GABA for the alpha4beta2delta receptor. Pentobarbital was a strong activator of both alpha4beta2gamma2 and alpha4beta2delta receptors. The maximal cluster open probability, recorded in the presence of 100 microm pentobarbital, was 0.7. At higher pentobarbital concentrations, the cluster open probability was reduced, probably due to channel block. The results from single-channel experiments were confirmed by macroscopic recordings from HEK cells in the presence of GABA or pentobarbital.