Effects of ethanol and pentobarbital on the GABA receptorchloride channel complex were evaluated in mice selected for differential sensitivity to the hypnotic effects of ethanol (long sleep and short sleep lines). 36Cl- influx, [35S]tbutylbicyclophosphorothionate (TBPS) and [3H]muscimol binding were measured in a membrane vesicle suspension (microsacs) from cerebellum or forebrain. Muscimol was found to be a more potent stimulator of 36Cl- flux in the LS cerebellum, as compared to the SS cerebellum, but a similar maximal level of uptake was achieved in the two lines. Muscimol displaced [35S]TBPS (a ligand for the convulsant site) from cerebellar microsacs, and LS mice were also more sensitive than SS mice to this action of muscimol. However, the number or affinity of high affinity [3H]muscimol binding sites did not differ between the lines. Physiologically relevant concentrations of ethanol (15-50 mM) potentiated muscimol stimulation of 36Cl- uptake in LS cerebellum but had no effect in SS cerebellum. Ethanol failed to alter stimulated chloride flux hippocampal microsacs from either line. Both the LS and SS lines responded similarly to pentobarbital potentiation of muscimol stimulated chloride uptake regardless of brain region. The demonstrated difference between the LS and SS mice in muscimol stimulated chloride uptake as well as in muscimol displacement of [35S]TBPS binding offers a biochemical explanation for the line differences in behavioral responses to GABAergic agents. Moreover, the findings suggest that genetic differences in ethanol hypnosis are related to differences in the sensitivity of GABA-operated chloride channels to ethanol.