The pharmacological properties of gamma-aminobutyric acidA (GABA(A)) receptors are altered by prolonged exposure to ethanol both in vivo and in vitro. We have shown previously that prolonged ethanol exposure elicits selective alterations in various GABA(A) receptor subunit mRNA levels in rat cerebral cortex. Some of these effects are rapidly reversed during ethanol withdrawal. The present study was conducted to determine the effects of prolonged ethanol exposure (dependence) and ethanol withdrawal on cerebral cortical peptide expression for several subunits. GABA(A) receptor alpha1 subunit peptide levels were decreased by nearly 40%, whereas alpha4 subunit peptide levels were increased by 27% in both ethanol-dependent and withdrawn rats. These changes correlate well with observed alterations in mRNA levels following prolonged ethanol exposure in dependent rats, but do not match the effects on mRNA levels during ethanol withdrawal. Beta2/3 subunit peptide levels increased by approximately 32% in both ethanol-dependent rats and rats undergoing ethanol withdrawal. We observed a 30-60% increase in gamma1 subunit peptide levels in both dependent rats and those undergoing withdrawal, also correlating with the previous report on ethanol-induced alterations in mRNA levels. Peptide levels for gamma2 subunits did not differ from control values in either condition. These findings show that specific alterations in GABA(A) receptor subunit peptide levels are associated with ethanol dependence in rats. GABA(A) receptor subunit peptide expression is more stable than mRNA expression, and mRNA levels are not representative of peptide expression during ethanol withdrawal. These findings are consistent with the suggestion that alterations in GABA(A) receptor gene expression underlie the functional properties of GABA(A) receptors in ethanol-dependent rats and those undergoing ethanol withdrawal.