The modulation of the gamma-aminobutyric acidA (GABAA) receptor by alphaxalone has been investigated by use of voltage-clamp recordings from enzymatically isolated bovine chromaffin cells maintained in cell culture. Alphaxalone (greater than 30 nM) reversibly and dose-dependently potentiated the amplitude of membrane currents elicited by locally applied GABA (100 microM). The potentiation was not associated with a change in the reversal potential of GABA-evoked currents and was not influenced by the benzodiazepine receptor antagonist, Ro15-1788 (300 nM). At relatively high concentrations (greater than 1 microM), alphaxalone directly elicited a membrane current. It is concluded that such currents result from GABAA receptor activation since they were reversibly suppressed by bicuculline (3 microM), dose-dependently enhanced by phenobarbitone (100-500 microM), and had a similar reversal potential (approximately 0 mV) to currents elicited by GABA. Additionally, on outside-out membrane patches, alphaxalone activated single channel currents with amplitudes and a reversal potential similar to those evoked by GABA. Alphaxalone (30 nM-1 microM) had no effect upon the amplitude of membrane currents elicited by locally applied acetylcholine (ACh) (100 microM). However, higher concentrations of alphaxalone (10-100 microM) reversibly suppressed ACh-evoked currents, the IC50 for blockade being 20 microM. The beta-hydroxy isomer of alphaxalone, betaxalone (100 nM-1 microM), did not potentiate GABA-induced currents, nor did higher concentrations of the steroid (10-100 microM) directly evoke a membrane current. However, over the latter concentration range, betaxalone suppressed the amplitude of currents elicited either by GABA or ACh. The relevance of the present results to the anaesthetic action of alphaxalone is discussed together with the broader implications of steroidal modulation of the GABAA receptor.