GABA is an important inhibitory transmitter in the CNS. In the enteric nervous system, however, both excitatory and inhibitory actions have been reported. Here, we investigated the effects of GABA on the intracellular Ca2+ concentration of guinea-pig myenteric neurons (at 35 degrees C) using Fura-2-AM. Neurons were identified by 75 mM K+ depolarization (5 s), which evoked a transient intracellular Ca2+ concentration increase. GABA (10 s) induced a dose dependent (5 nM-1 microM) transient intracellular Ca2+ concentration rise in the majority of neurons (500 nM GABA: 251+/-17 nM, n=232/289). Interestingly, the response to 5 microM GABA (n=18) lasted several minutes and did not fully recover. GABA response amplitudes were significantly (P<0.001) reduced by GABAA and GABAB receptor antagonists (10 microM) bicuculline and phaclofen. The GABAA agonist isoguvacine (10 microM) and GABAB agonist baclofen (10 microM) induced similar responses as 50 nM GABA, while the GABAC agonist cis-4-aminocrotonic acid (CACA) (10 microM) only elicited small responses in a minority of neurons. Removal of extracellular Ca2+ abolished all responses while depletion of intracellular Ca2+ stores by thapsigargin (5 microM) did not alter the responses to 500 nM GABA (n=13), but reduction of Ca2+ influx through voltage-dependent Ca2+ channels did. The nicotinic antagonist hexamethonium (100 microM) also reduced GABA responses by almost 70% suggesting that GABA stimulates cholinergic pathways, while the purinergic receptor blocker pyridoxal-phosphate-6-azophenyl-2',4'-disulfonic acid (PPADS) and the 5-HT3 receptor blocker ondansetron only had minor effects. Conclusion: GABA elicits transient intracellular Ca2+ concentration responses in the majority of myenteric neurons through activation of GABAA and GABAB receptors and much of the response can be attributed to facilitation of ACh release. Thus GABA may act mainly as a modulator that sets the state of excitability of the enteric nerve network. A concentration of 5 microM GABA, although frequently used in pharmacological experiments, seems to cause a detrimental response reminiscent of the neurotoxic effects glutamate has in the CNS.