Two cDNAs (alpha 1 and alpha 4) from rat brain cDNA libraries encode isoforms of the alpha subunit of the GABA/benzodiazepine receptor, which differ at 30% of their amino acid residues. Northern blot analysis and in situ hybridization histochemistry show that alpha 1 and alpha 4 mRNAs have distinct sizes and distinct regional and cellular distributions in rat brain: both mRNAs are found in the cortex and hippocampus; however, only the alpha 1 mRNA is detected in the cerebellum. We injected RNA transcribed from alpha 1 and alpha 4 cDNAs into Xenopus oocytes, together with an RNA for a rat beta subunit. We obtained GABA-dependent inward currents that were reversibly blocked by picrotoxin. Picrotoxin alone, applied to oocytes producing the alpha and beta polypeptides, elicited an outward current. We suggest that these polypeptides together produce GABA-gated ion channels that can also open spontaneously.