The role of subunit composition in determining intrinsic maximum activation and deactivation kinetics of GABA(A) receptor channels is unknown. We used rapid ligand application (100-micros solution exchange) to examine the effects of alpha-subunit composition on GABA-evoked activation and deactivation rates. HEK 293 cells were transfected with human cDNAs encoding alpha1beta1gamma2- or alpha2beta1gamma2-subunits. Channel kinetics were similar across different transfections of the same subunits and reproducible across several GABA applications in the same patch. Current rise to peak was at least twice as fast for alpha2beta1gamma2 receptors than for alpha1beta1gamma2 receptors (reflected in 10-90% rise times of 0.5 versus 1.0 ms, respectively), and deactivation was six to seven times slower (long time constants of 208 ms versus 31 ms) after saturating GABA applications. Thus alpha-subunit composition determined activation and deactivation kinetics of GABA(A) receptor channels and is therefore likely to influence the kinetics and efficacy of inhibitory postsynaptic currents.