The synthesis and pharmacological properties of imidazobenzodiazepines with both high affinity and selectivity for alpha 5-containing GABAA receptors are described. Four of these compounds (5, 6, 8, and 9) inhibited [3H]flunitrazepam binding to recombinant alpha 5 beta 2 gamma 2 GABAA receptors with IC50 values between approximately 0.4 and 5 nM. These compounds were > or = 24-75-fold more selective for recombinant receptors containing alpha 5 subunits compared to other, "diazepam-sensitive" GABAA receptors containing either alpha 1, alpha 2, or alpha 3 subunits. Imidazobenzodiazepine 9 (used as the prototypical alpha 5 selective ligand) inhibited [3H]flunitrazepam binding to hippocampal membranes with high- and low-affinity components (IC50 0.6 +/- 0.2 and 85.6 +/- 13.1 nM, respectively), representing approximately 16% and approximately 84% of the receptor pool. Inhibition of [3H]flunitrazepam binding to cerebellar membranes with imidazobenzodiazepine 9 was best fitted to a single population of sites with an IC50 of 79.8 +/- 18.3 nM. These imidazobenzodiazepines behaved as GABA negative ligands in recombinant GABAA receptors expressed in Xenopus oocytes and were convulsant in mice after parenteral administration. The relative potencies of flumazenil and zolpidem in blocking convulsions induced by 9 and DMCM, respectively, indicated that occupation of alpha 5-containing GABAA receptors substantially contributed to the convulsant properties of acetylene analog 9. These 8-substituted imidazobenzodiazepines (5, 6, 8 and 9) should prove useful in examining the physiological roles of GABAA receptors bearing an alpha 5 subunit and may also lead to the development of novel, subtype selective therapeutic agents.