Cortical neurons using the inhibitory neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) are known to contribute to the formation of neuronal receptive field properties in the primary visual cortex (area 17) of the cat. In order to determine the cortical location of GABA containing neurons and what proportion of cortical neurons might use GABA as their transmitter, we analysed their distribution quantitatively using a post-embedding GABA immunohistochemical method on semithin sections in conjunction with stereological procedures. The mean total numerical density of neurons in the medial bank of the lateral gyrus (area 17) of five adult cats was 54,210 +/- 634 per mm3 (mean +/- SD). An average of 20.60 +/- 0.48% (mean +/- SEM) of the neurons were immunoreactive for GABA. The density of GABA-immunoreactive neurons was somewhat higher in layers II, III and upper VI, compared with layers I, IV, V and lower VI, with the lowest density being in layer V. The proportion of GABA-immunopositive cells relative to immunonegative neurons gradually decreased from the pia to the white matter. Layer I was different from other layers in that approximately 95% of its neurons were GABA-immunoreactive. The results allowed the calculation of the absolute numbers of GABAergic neurons in each layer under a given cortical surface area and could provide the basis for the quantitative treatment of cortical circuits.