The effects of the benzodiazepine agonist midazolam on GABAA receptor-mediated inhibition were investigated in area CA3 of hippocampal slice cultures. Midazolam (100 nM) increased the decay time constant (tau OFF) of miniature inhibitory postsynaptic currents (mIPSCs) recorded from pyramidal cells by approximately 40%, but did not significantly affect their activation rate or amplitude, consistent with saturation of postsynaptic GABAA receptors by a quantum of GABA. Non-stationary variance analysis of mIPSCs revealed that the unitary conductance of synaptic GABAA channels (approximately 31 pS) was unaffected by midazolam. Midazolam increased not only the tau OFF (51%), but also the amplitude (23%) of unitary IPSPs, recorded from pairs of monosynaptically connected inhibitory and pyramidal cells. Simulation of unitary IPSPs indicated that the increased amplitude was primarily due to the slow time constant of pyramidal cells. Finally, the mean amplitude, tau OFF, and single-channel conductance of mIPSCs recorded in cultures chronically exposed to midazolam (0.1-10 microM) for 2 weeks were not different from control mIPSCs, nor was their response to midazolam. We conclude that benzodiazepines increase synaptic GABAA channel open time, as described previously, and that this results in an increase in both the amplitude and duration of IPSPs in pyramidal cells.