In temporal lobe epilepsy, loss of inhibitory neurons and circuit changes in the dentate gyrus promote hyperexcitability. This hyperexcitability is compensated to the point that dentate granule cells exhibit normal or even subnormal excitability under some conditions. This study explored the possibility that compensation involves enhanced tonic GABA inhibition. Whole cell patch-clamp recordings were made from normotopic granule cells in hippocampal slices from control rats and from both normotopic and hilar ectopic granule cells in slices from rats subjected to pilocarpine-induced status epilepticus. After status epilepticus, tonic GABA current was an order of magnitude greater than control in normotopic granule cells and was significantly greater in hilar ectopic than in normotopic granule cells. These differences could be observed whether or not the extracellular GABA concentration was increased by adding GABA to the superfusion medium or blocking plasma membrane transport. The enhanced tonic GABA current had both action potential-dependent and action potential-independent components. Pharmacological studies suggested that the small tonic GABA current of granule cells in control rats was mediated largely by high-affinity alpha(4)beta(x)delta GABA(A) receptors but that the much larger current recorded after status epilepticus was mediated largely by the lower-affinity alpha(5)beta(x)gamma(2) GABA(A) receptors. A large alpha(5)beta(x)gamma(2)-mediated tonic current could be recorded from controls only when the extracellular GABA concentration was increased. Status epilepticus seemed not to impair the control of extracellular GABA concentration by plasma membrane transport substantially. Upregulated tonic GABA inhibition may account for the unexpectedly modest excitability of the dentate gyrus in epileptic brain.