Neurons in the brainstem auditory nuclei, n. magnocellularis and n. laminaris, of the chick are contacted by terminals containing the inhibitory neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). In this report we describe the physiological response of these neurons to GABA using an in vitro slice preparation. In brainstem auditory neurons, GABA produced a depolarization of up to 20 mV and an associated decrease in input resistance. This depolarization was inhibitory; action potentials generated by orthodromic synaptic drive, antidromic stimulation and intracellular current injection were prevented by GABA application. The GABA response still occurred when synaptic transmission was prevented by perfusing the slice with a medium containing low Ca2+ and high Mg2+ concentrations. Thus, the effects of GABA were directly on the postsynaptic neuron and not via an interneuron. Whole-cell voltage clamp of neurons revealed that the reversal potential of the inward current was approximately -45 mV, suggesting that the channel responsible for this response is not selective for Cl- or K+. Pharmacological analyses suggest that this GABA receptor has properties distinct from those typical of either GABAa or GABAb receptors. Although a similar response was observed with the GABAa agonist, muscimol, it was not blocked by the GABAa antagonist, bicuculline. The response was not evoked by the GABAb agonist, baclofen, and was not blocked by the GABAb antagonist phaclofen. This unusual depolarizing response is not a common feature of all brainstem neurons. Neurons located in the neighboring medial vestibular nucleus show a more traditional response to GABA application. At resting potential, these neurons show a hyperpolarizing or biphasic response associated with a decrease in input resistance and inhibition of their spontaneous activity. GABA-induced responses in the medial vestibular nucleus are blocked by bicuculline. These results suggest that an unusual form of the GABA receptor is present in the brainstem auditory system of the chick. It is possible that this form of GABA receptor provides an efficient mechanism for inhibiting the relatively powerful EPSPs received by brainstem auditory neurons, or it may play a trophic role in the afferent regulation of neuronal integrity in this system.