(+)-Borneol is a bicyclic monoterpene used for analgesia and anaesthesia in traditional Chinese and Japanese medicine and is found in the essential oils of medicinal herbs, such as valerian. (+)-Borneol was found to have a highly efficacious positive modulating action at GABA(A) receptors, as did its enantiomer (-)-borneol. The effects of these bicyclic monoterpenes alone and with GABA were evaluated at recombinant human alpha(1)beta(2)gamma(2L) GABA(A) receptors expressed in Xenopus laevis oocytes using two-electrode voltage-clamp electrophysiology. (+)-Borneol (EC(50) 248microM) and (-)-borneol (EC(50) 237microM) enhanced the action of low concentrations of GABA by more than 1000%. These enhancing effects were highly dependent on the relative concentrations of the borneol enantiomer and GABA, and were insensitive to flumazenil indicating that (+)- and (-)-borneol were not acting at classical benzodiazepine sites. The maximal responses to GABA were enhanced 19% by (+)-borneol and reduced 21% by (-)-borneol. The borneol analogues isoborneol, (-)-bornyl acetate and camphor, produced less marked effects. At high concentrations (>1.5mM) (+)- and (-)-borneol directly activated GABA(A) receptors producing 89% and 84%, respectively, of the maximal GABA response indicative of a weak partial agonist action. Although of lower potency, the highly efficacious positive modulatory actions of (+)- and (-)-borneol on GABA responses were at least equivalent to that of the anaesthetic etomidate and much greater than that of diazepam or 5alpha-pregnan-3alpha-ol-20-one. The relatively rigid cage structure of these bicyclic monoterpenes and their high efficacy may aid in a greater understanding of molecular aspects of positive modulation of the activation of GABA(A) receptors.