Zolpidem is not a typical GABAA receptor hypnotic. Unlike benzodiazepines, zolpidem modulates tonic GABA currents in the rat dorsal motor nucleus of the vagus, exhibits residual effects in mice lacking the benzodiazepine binding site, and improves speech, cognitive and motor function in human patients with severe brain injury. The receptor by which zolpidem mediates these effects is not known. In this study we evaluated binary α1β3 GABAA receptors in either the 3α1:2β3 or 2α1:3β3 subunit stoichiometry, which differ by the existence of either an α1-α1 interface, or a β3-β3 interface, respectively. Both receptor stoichiometries are readily expressed in Xenopus oocytes, distinguished from each other by using GABA, zolpidem, diazepam and Zn(2+). At the 3α1:2β3 receptor, clinically relevant concentrations of zolpidem enhanced GABA in a flumazenil-sensitive manner. The efficacy of diazepam was significantly lower compared to zolpidem. No modulation by either zolpidem or diazepam was detected at the 2α1:3β3 receptor, indicating that the binding site for zolpidem is at the α1-α1 interface, a site mimicking the classical α1-γ2 benzodiazepine site. Activating α1β3 (3α1:2β3) receptors may, in part, mediate the physiological effects of zolpidem observed under distinct physiological and clinical conditions, constituting a potentially attractive drug target.