Menthol and related compounds were investigated for modulation of recombinant human gamma-aminobutyric acid type A (GABA(A), alpha(1)beta(2)gamma(2s)) receptor currents expressed in Xenopus oocytes. Sub-maximal (EC(20)) GABA currents were typically enhanced by co-applications of 3-300 microM (+)-menthol (e.g. by approximately 2-fold at 50 microM) > isopulegol > isomenthol> alpha-terpineol >> cyclohexanol. We studied menthol's actions on GABA(A) receptors compared to sedatives (benzodiazepines) and intravenous anesthetics (barbiturates, steroids, etomidate and propofol). Flumazenil (a benzodiazepine antagonist) did not inhibit menthol enhancements while currents directly activated by 50 microM propofol were significantly inhibited (by 26+/-3%) by 50 microM (+)-menthol. GABA(A) receptors containing beta(2) subunits with either a point mutation in a methionine residue to a tryptophan at the 286 position (in transmembrane domain 3, TM-3) or a tyrosine to a tryptophan at the 444 position (TM-4) are insensitive to modulation by propofol. Enhancements of GABA EC(20) currents by menthol were equally abolished in GABA(A) alpha(1)beta(2)(M286W)gamma(2s) and alpha(1)beta(2)(Y444W)gamma(2s) receptors while positive modulations by benzodiazepines, barbiturates and steroids were unaffected. Menthol may therefore exert its actions on GABA(A) receptors via sites distinct from benzodiazepines, steroids and barbiturates, and via sites important for modulation by propofol. Finally, using an in vivo tadpole assay, addition of (+)-menthol resulted in a loss of righting reflex with an EC(50) of 23.5+/-4.7 microM (approximately10-fold less potent anesthesia than propofol). Thus, menthol and analogs share general anesthetic action with propofol, possibly via action at similar sites on the GABA(A) receptor.