The localization of GABAA receptors in cat and rat spinal cord was analyzed using two monoclonal antibodies specific for an epitope shared by the beta 2 and beta 3 subunits of the receptor. beta 2/beta 3-subunit immunoreactivity was the most intense in inner lamina II, lamina III, and lamina X, and it was the least intense in lamina IX. In laminae I-III, generally, the staining had a rather diffuse appearance, but the surfaces of small cell bodies in these laminae were outlined clearly by discrete labeling, as were many cell bodies and dendrites in deeper laminae. Rhizotomy experiments and ultrastructural observations indicated that beta 2/beta 3-subunit immunoreactivity in the dorsal horn was largely localized in intrinsic neuropil elements rather than in the terminals of primary afferent fibers, even though labeling overlapped with the terminal fields of different types of primary afferents and was also detected on the membranes of dorsal root ganglion neurons. With few exceptions (most notably, a highly immunoreactive group of dorsolaterally located cells in the cat lumbar ventral horn), motoneurons expressed low levels of beta 2/beta 3-subunit immunoreactivity. Labeling of neuronal membranes was fairly continuous, but focal accumulations of beta 2/beta 3-subunit immunoreactivity were also detected using immunofluorescence. Focal "hot spots" correlated ultrastructurally with the presence of synaptic junctions. Dual-color immunofluorescence revealed that focal accumulations of beta 2/beta 3-subunit immunoreactivity were frequently apposed by glutamic acid decarboxylase (GAD)-immunoreactive terminals. However, the density of continuous-membrane beta 2/beta 3 immunolabeling and GAD terminal density were not correlated in many individual neurons. The results suggest the existence of "classical" (synaptic) and "nonclassical" (paracrine) actions mediated via spinal cord GABAA receptors. The study also revealed the relative paucity of beta 2/beta 3-subunit immunoreactivity postsynaptic to certain GABAergic terminals, particularly those presynaptic to motoneurons or primary afferent terminals.