Many inhaled anesthetics enhance the effect of the inhibitory neurotransmitter gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA), supporting the view that the GABAA receptor could mediate the capacity of inhaled anesthetics to produce immobility in the face of noxious stimulation (i.e., MAC, the minimum alveolar concentration required to suppress movement in response to a noxious stimulus in 50% of subjects). However, only limited in vivo data support the relevance of the GABAA receptor to MAC. In the present study we used two findings to test for the relevance of this receptor to immobilization for isoflurane: 1) differences among anesthetics in their capacity to enhance the response of receptor expression systems to GABA: isoflurane (considerable enhancement), xenon (minimal enhancement), and cyclopropane (minimal enhancement); and 2) studies showing that the spinal cord mediates MAC for isoflurane. If GABAA receptors mediate isoflurane MAC, then their blockade in the spinal cord should increase isoflurane MAC more than cyclopropane or xenon MAC and the MAC increase should be proportional to the in vitro enhancement of the GABAA receptor. To test this thesis, isoflurane, cyclopropane, or xenon MAC was determined in rats during intrathecal infusion of artificial cerebrospinal fluid (aCSF) via chronically implanted catheters. Then MAC was redetermined during infusion of 1 microL/min aCSF containing either 0.6 or 2.4 mg/mL picrotoxin, which noncompetitively blocks GABAA receptors. There was no consistent increase in MAC consequent to increasing the picrotoxin dose from 0.6 to 2.4 microg/min, which suggests that maximal blockade of GABAA receptors in the spinal cord had been achieved. Picrotoxin infusion increased MAC approximately 40% with all anesthetics. This indicates that GABA release in the spinal cord influences anesthetic requirement. However, the increase did not consistently differ among anesthetics and did not correlate with in vitro enhancement of GABAA receptors by these anesthetics. This supports the view that GABAA receptors do not mediate immobilization for isoflurane.