1. The functional and molecular properties of NMDA receptors (NMDA-Rs) were studied in single, visually identified GABAergic medial septal neurones of the rat forebrain using patch clamp, fluorometric Ca2+ measurements and the single-cell reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) technique. 2. Large neurones close to the mid-line of the medial septal region were shown by the expression of mRNA for a form of glutamate decarboxylase (GAD65) to be almost exclusively GABAergic. A variety of NR2 subunit combinations were detected in the same population of neurones. When tested for NR2A-C, all but one neurone were shown to express mRNA for NR2B. The NR2B subunit mRNA was usually detected together with NR2A or NR2C. mRNA for NR2D was detected in most neurones from a separate batch of cells tested only for this subunit. 3. Single channel measurements in outside-out patches combined with RT-PCR on the same cell showed that NMDA-R channels from these neurones had main single channel conductance levels of 42 pS in 2 mM Ca2+ and 49 pS in 1 mM Ca2+. In addition, a number of other conductance levels were observed, with values in 2 mM Ca2+ of 51, 31, 19 and 13 pS. No clear difference was observed in the pattern of conductance levels displayed by neurones in which different subunit combinations were detected. 4. Whole-cell agonist-induced currents were strongly reduced by the NMDA-R antagonist ifenprodil, at a concentration that mainly affects receptors containing NR2B in recombinant systems. Currents activated by NMDA had a high sensitivity to extracellular Mg2+. 5. The fraction of the total cation current through NMDA-R that was carried by Ca2+, measured using a combination of patch clamp and fluorometry in neurones loaded with a high concentration of the Ca2+ indicator fura-2, was found to be approximately 12%. 6. NMDA-R-mediated excitatory synaptic currents (EPSCs) had similar time courses to those in neurones in other brain regions. The decay kinetics were biexponential, with respective mean values for the fast (tau f) and slow (tau 8) time constants of 79 and 300 ms at -60 mV, and 66 and 284 ms at +40 mV. EPSCs were greatly reduced by ifenprodil (3 microM). 7. In conclusion, NMDA receptors in GABAergic medial septal neurones display a characteristic functional profile. The NR2 subunit mRNA detected and the single channel conductance levels observed suggest that, in addition to NR2B, which is present in nearly all cells, NR2A, NR2C and NR2D are also expressed. However, most of the functional properties of NMDA-Rs in these neurones, including the strong inhibition by ifenprodil and Mg2+, the high fractional Ca2+ current, and the time course of the synaptic currents, are more consistent with those known for NR2B than for the other NR2 subunits. These results suggest that the NR2B subunit dominates over other NR2 subunits in determining the functional properties of NMDA-Rs in these neurones.