Propofol (2,6 di-isopropylphenol) is an alkyphenol recently introduced for use as a general anesthetic. The modulation of GABAA receptor activation and desensitization by propofol was studied using a rapid perfusion system and whole-cell voltage-clamp recordings from mouse hippocampal neurons. The effects of concentrations of propofol used clinically on single-channel and synaptic currents were also examined. Propofol evoked current responses (EC50 = 61 microM) and shifted the dose-response curve of GABA-activated current to the left without altering the maximum of the GABA response. Preincubation with propofol and GABA led to desensitization of the GABA response (EC50 = 454 microM and 23 microM, respectively). Saturating concentrations of GABA (600 microM) evoked currents that peaked and then declined in a biexponential fashion with fast and slow time constants of tau f = 1.0 sec and tau s = 3.5 sec. Propofol (10 microM) did not change the amplitude of the peak response but decreased the rates of decay approximately 1.5-fold and enhanced the steady-state current proportionately. Recovery from desensitization was also biexponential (tau f = 11 sec, tau s = 69 sec) but not influenced by propofol. Single- channel recordings from outside-out patches demonstrated that both propofol and GABA activated channels with a 30 pS and 21 pS open state. Propofol increased the frequency but not the duration or conductance of GABA-activated events. Miniature inhibitory postsynaptic currents (mlPSCs) were evoked by the application of hypertonic sucrose to the cell soma. Propofol (2 microM) prolonged the decay time of mlPSCs to an extent similar to which it increased the open probability of GABA- activated channels (2.3- vs 3-fold). A sequential model, based on a previous scheme of GABA receptor gating (Weiss and Magelby, 1989), is presented to summarize propofol's actions on GABAA receptor function. We show through simulation that the model reliably reproduced the whole- cell tracings. Our results indicate that propofol's neurodepressive actions will be associated with enhancement of inhibitory synaptic transmission.