gamma-Aminobutyric acid (GABA) has been shown to depolarize the membranes of astrocytes and oligodendrocytes taken from different tissues and species. The mechanism mediating this depolarization was identified, in cultured rat brain astrocytes, as an activation of GABA receptor-linked Cl- channels. A subpopulation of cultured oligodendrocytes from mouse spinal cord also responded to GABA with a membrane depolarization. In the present study we demonstrate that, in oligodendrocytes, the depolarization was accompanied by a decrease in intracellular Cl- activity [( Cl-]i) as measured with ion-selective microelectrodes. At rest, [Cl-]i was elevated above the passive distribution, and upon application of GABA, [Cl-]i decreased towards the level of passive distribution. Furosemide blocked the Cl- inward carrier which led to a passive Cl- distribution; in the presence of furosemide, GABA no longer elicited a membrane depolarization or a change in [Cl-]i. We conclude that oligodendrocytes, which were depolarized by GABA, expressed GABA-activated Cl- channels. Oligodendrocytes which were unresponsive to GABA demonstrated a non-passive Cl- distribution indicating that they did express inward-directed Cl- carriers, but no GABA-activated Cl- channels.