Whole-cell patch recordings were made from immature (six- to 12-day-old) rat rostral ventrolateral medulla neurons in brainstem slices. GABA or the specific GABA(B) receptor agonist (-)baclofen (10-50 microM) by superfusion or by pressure ejection induced an outward current or a hyperpolarization, which persisted in a tetrodotoxin (0.3 microM)-containing Krebs' solution in nearly every cell tested. The GABA(B) receptor antagonists 2-hydroxy saclofen (50-200 microM) and CGP 35348 (50-200 microM) dose-dependently suppressed baclofen-currents. Baclofen-currents were suppressed by barium (1 mM) but not by tetraethylammonium (20 mM), low Ca2+ (0.24 mM) solution or in a solution containing the Ca2+ chelator BAPTA-AM (10 microM). The outward current had an estimated reversal potential of -98, -77 and -52 mV in 3.1, 7 and 15 mM [K+]o. Pre-incubation of slices with pertussis toxin (500 microg/ml for 5-7 h) or intracellular dialysis with GDP-beta-S (500 microM) markedly reduced baclofen-currents. Baclofen in low concentrations (1-3 microM) that caused slight or no change of holding currents and of inward or outward currents induced by exogenously applied glutamate or glycine/GABA, decreased excitatory and inhibitory postsynaptic currents by an average of 86.5 +/- 4.3% and 78.4 +/- 2.7%. The GABA(B) antagonist CGP 35348 (100 microM) increased the excitatory postsynaptic currents by an average of 64%, without causing a significant change in holding currents in 10/18 cells tested. Our results indicate the presence of post- and presynaptic GABA(B) receptors in the rostral ventrolateral medulla neurons. Activation of postsynaptic GABA(B) receptors induces an outward K+ current which is barium-sensitive, Ca2+-independent and may be coupled to a pertussis-sensitive G-protein. Activation of presynaptic GABA(B) receptors attenuates excitatory or inhibitory synaptic transmission. More importantly, the observation that CGP 35348 enhanced excitatory synaptic currents implies a removal of tonic activation of presynaptic GABA(B) receptors by endogenously released GABA (disinhibition), supporting the hypothesis that these receptors may have a physiological role in regulating the input and output ratio in a subset of rostral ventrolateral medulla neurons in vivo.