Ethanol appears to enhance gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA)-mediated synaptic transmission. Using radioligand binding techniques, we investigated the possibility that the GABA-benzodiazepine receptor complex is the site responsible for this effect. Ethanol at concentrations up to 100 mM failed to alter binding of [3H]flunitrazepam (FNZ), [3H]Ro 15-1788, or [3H]methyl-beta-carboline-3-carboxylate (MBCC) to benzodiazepine receptors, or of [3H]muscimol to GABA receptors in rat brain membranes. Scatchard analyses of the binding of these radioligands at 4 degrees C and 37 degrees C revealed no significant effects of 100 mM ethanol on receptor affinity or number. A variety of drugs as well as chloride ion increased binding of [3H]FNZ and/or [3H]muscimol, but these influences were not modified by ethanol. These findings indicate that ethanol probably potentiates GABAergic neurotransmission at a signal transduction site beyond the GABA-benzodiazepine receptor complex.