The potent benzodiazepine receptor ligands beta-carboline-3-carboxylic acid ethyl ester (beta-CCE) and the corresponding methylester (beta-CCM) administered i.v. depressed segmental dorsal root potentials in spinal cats, reversed the prolongation of dorsal root potentials by phenobarbitone, and abolished the depression of a motor performance task induced by phenobarbitone in mice; beta-CCE enhanced the low-frequency facilitation of pyramidal population spikes in the hippocampus of anaesthetized rats. These effects of beta-carbolines reflect a depression of GABAergic synaptic transmission and, thus, are diametrically opposed to the enhancing action of benzodiazepine tranquilizers. The specific benzodiazepine antagonist, Ro 15-1788, while not affecting dorsal root potentials, hippocampal population spikes or phenobarbitone-induced motor performance depression, abolished the effects of beta-CCE on the three parameters and similar effects of beta-CCM on the spinal cord and motor performance. A three-state model of the benzodiazepine receptor is proposed in which benzodiazepine tranquilizers act as agonists enhancing the function of the benzodiazepine receptor as a coupling unit between GABA receptor and chloride channel, beta-carbolines act as "inverse agonists" reducing this coupling function, and Ro 15-1788 represents a competitive antagonist blocking both the enhancing effect of agonists and the depressant effect of "inverse agonists" on GABAergic synaptic transmission.