Intracellular and patch-clamp recordings have been used to characterize GABA-activated channels in axonless horizontal cells (ALHC) of the rabbit retina. In our intracellular recordings on an everted eyecup preparation, GABA depolarized the horizontal cells (HC), diminished their light response amplitude and slowed the response rise time. Glycine showed similar effects on the HC light responses. In our whole cell patch-clamp recordings on dissociated ALHC, all HCs responded to 3 microM GABA but none to glycine, even at 100 microM. Dose-response relationship for GABA gave EC50 values around 10 microM and Hill slopes of 1.3. Whole-cell current-voltage (I-V) relationships of GABA-activated currents reversed close to the predicted Cl- equilibrium potential. Partial replacement of intracellular Cl- with isothetionate shifted the GABA reversal potential to a more negative value. Muscimol (30 microM), a GABAA agonist mimicked the effect of GABA, but baclofen (30 microM), a GABAB agonist and cis-aminocaprionic acid (30 microM), a GABAC agonist did not elicit any effect on ALHC. Responses to GABA were blocked by the GABAA receptor antagonist bicuculline (10 microM) and picrotoxin (100 microM). According to our results, we conclude that ALHC express GABA receptors coupled to ion channels, and they correspond to GABAA receptor subtypes.