Modulation of inhibitory glycine receptors by zinc (Zn(2+)) and endogenous redox agents such as glutathione may alter inhibition in the mammalian brain. Despite the abundance of Zn(2+) in the hippocampus and its ability to modulate glycine receptors, few studies have examined Zn(2+) modulation of hippocampal glycine receptors. Whether redox agents modulate hippocampal glycine receptors also remains unknown. This study examined Zn(2+) and redox modulation of glycine receptor-mediated currents in cultured embryonic mouse hippocampal neurons using whole-cell recordings. Zn(2+) concentrations below 10 microM potentiated currents elicited by low glycine, beta-alanine, and taurine concentrations by 300-400%. Zn(2+) concentrations above 300 microM produced nearly complete inhibition. Potentiating Zn(2+) concentrations shifted the dose-response curves for the three agonists to the left and decreased the Hill coefficient for glycine and beta-alanine but not taurine. Inhibiting Zn(2+) concentrations shifted the dose-response curves for glycine and beta-alanine to the right but reduced the maximum taurine response. Histidine residues may participate in potentiation because diethyl pyrocarbonate and pH 5.4 diminished Zn(2+) enhancement of glycine currents. pH 5.4 diminished Zn(2+) block of glycine currents, but diethyl pyrocarbonate did not. These findings indicate that separate sites mediate Zn(2+) potentiation and inhibition. The redox agents glutathione, dithiothreitol, tris(2-carboxyethyl)phosphine, and 5,5'-dithiobis(2-nitrobenzoic acid) did not alter glycine currents by a redox mechanism. However, glutathione and dithiothreitol interfered with the effects of Zn(2+) on glycine currents by chelating it. Carnosine had similar effects. Thus, Zn(2+) and thiol containing redox agents that chelate Zn(2+) modulate hippocampal glycine receptors with the mechanism of Zn(2+) modulation being agonist dependent.