The effects of Ro 5-4864 (4'-chlorodiazepam; the archetypic peripheral benzodiazepine receptor ligand) were examined on the electrophysiological responses of rat cerebellar Purkinje neurons maintained in vitro. Ro 5-4864 produced a biphasic response (consisting of an increase followed by a decrease in spontaneous firing) in approximately 50% of the neurons studied. The remaining neurons responded to Ro 5-4864 application with decreased spontaneous activity. The EC50 and IC50 values for the excitatory and depressant responses to Ro 5-4864 were 490 and 450 nM, respectively. Preincubation with PK 11195 [N-methyl-N-(methyl-1-propyl)chloro-2-phenyl-1-isoquinoline-3-carboxamid e; a peripheral benzodiazepine receptor antagonist] reduced the potency of Ro 5-4864 to inhibit cell firing in a competitive fashion, but did not alter Ro 5-4864-elicited excitations. A similar effect was observed with the monocarboxylic acid anion transport inhibitor UK 5099 [alpha-cyano-beta-(1-phenylindol-3-yl)acrylate]. In contrast, the increases in cell firing elicited by t-butylbicyclophosphorothionate (a GABA-gated chloride channel blocker) were enhanced 6-fold by coperfusion with both Ro 5-4864 and PK 11195. These findings suggest that the Ro 5-4864 induced depressions of Purkinje neuron spontaneous activity is mediated by peripheral benzodiazepine receptors, whereas the excitation may result from modulation of the gamma-aminobutyric acid-gated chloride ionophore.