1. The effect of serotonin on inhibitory synaptic transmission was examined in forty-one CA1 pyramidal neurones using intracellular voltage recordings in vitro. 2. Serotonin (20-50 microM) increased the synaptic noise of most (85%) neurones loaded with chloride (n = 33). The duration of this effect was enhanced with increasing concentrations of serotonin and was fully reversible within 5 min. When serotonin was applied at short intervals (less than 10 min), fading of the response was observed. 3. The effect of serotonin on synaptic noise persisted in the presence of the glutamate NMDA and non-NMDA antagonists, APV (100 microM) and CNQX (10 microM), but it was blocked (n = 5) by a GABAA antagonist, bicuculline (10 microM). 4. The increase in inhibitory synaptic events resulted from an enhanced frequency of unitary IPSPs from 4.6 +/- 3.8 Hz in control to 17.2 +/- 12.5 Hz (n = 5) in serotonin, especially of large events. Serotonin caused no change in the amplitude and frequency of miniature synaptic events recorded in the presence of TTX (n = 5). The mean amplitude of unitary inhibitory postsynaptic potentials (IPSPs) increased from 1.37 +/- 0.35 mV in control to 3.67 +/- 1.38 mV in serotonin. The coefficient of variation of unitary IPSPs increased from 0.40 +/- 0.11 in control to 0.74 +/- 0.23 in serotonin when quantal size appeared unchanged. 5. The 5-HT3 agonist 2-methyl-serotonin (52 microM, n = 4) partially mimicked the effect of serotonin, increasing the inhibitory noise without affecting the pyramidal neurone conductance. The serotonin-induced facilitation of unitary IPSPs was blocked by the 5-HT3 antagonists ICS 205-930 (1-90 nM, n = 3) and metoclopramide (30 microM, n = 1). 6. These results suggest that serotonin directly excites GABAergic interneurones acting on a 5-HT3 receptor and consequently increasing the frequency of inhibitory synaptic events recorded in CA1 pyramidal cells.