Clonal neurohybridoma NCB-20 cells express a valproate-insensitive succinic semialdehyde reductase activity that transforms succinic semialdehyde into gamma-hydroxybutyrate. This activity (1.14+/-0.16 nmol/min/mg protein) was similar to the lowest activity existing in adult rat brain. [3H]gamma-Hydroxybutyrate labels a homogeneous population of sites on NCB-20 cell membranes (Kd=250+/-44.4nM, Bmax=180+/-16.2fmol/mg protein) that apparently represents specific gamma-hydroxybutyrate binding sites characterized previously on brain cell membranes. Finally, an Na+-dependent uptake of [3H]gamma-hydroxybutyrate was expressed in NCB-20 cells with a Km of 35+21.1 microM and a Vmax of 80+/-14.2 pmol/min/mg protein. A three-day treatment with 1 mM dibutyryl-cyclic-AMP induced a three-fold increase in the cellular succinic semialdehyde reductase activity. In parallel, a K+-evoked release of [3H]gamma-hydroxybutyrate occurred. This release was Ca2+ dependent and was not present in undifferentiated cells. Cyclic-AMP treatment induced a decrease of [3H]gamma-hydroxybutyrate binding sites, which could be due to spontaneous gamma-hydroxybutyrate release. Patch-clamp experiments carried out on differentiated NCB-20 cells revealed the presence of Ca2+ conductances which were partially inhibited by 50 microM gamma-hydroxybutyrate. This gamma-hydroxybutyrate-induced effect was blocked by the gamma-hydroxybutyrate receptor antagonist NCS-382, but not by the GABA(B) antagonist CGP-55845. These results demonstrate the presence of an active gamma-hydroxybutyratergic system in NCB-20 cells which possesses the ability to release gamma-hydroxybutyrate. These cells express specific gamma-hydroxybutyrate receptors which modulate Ca2+ currents independently of GABA(B) receptors.