Synaptic inhibition mediated by the activation of potassium channels has been reported from several types of neurons. In each case, despite mediation by different neurotransmitters, the K+ conductance underlying the synaptic potential is activated by a G protein and inwardly rectifies. We report here a second K+ current that contributes to synaptic inhibition. Intracellular recordings were made from guinea pig nucleus prepositus hypoglossi in vitro, where we have described a 5-HT- mediated IPSP. Voltage-clamp analysis of the current induced by applied 5-HT revealed two separate conductances: an inwardly rectifying, rapidly activating K+ current (IIR) and an outwardly rectifying, slowly activating K+ current (IOR). IIR was blocked by extracellular Ba2+ (200 microM) and TEA+ (126 mM). IOR was insensitive to this concentration of Ba2+ and TEA+, but was inhibited by Cd2+ and intracellular BAPTA, indicating Ca dependence. Single focal electrical stimuli evoked a 5-HT- mediated IPSP, or under voltage clamp, an inhibitory postsynaptic current (IPSC). Ba2+ blocked only a component of this IPSC, which corresponded to the current caused by IIR. When multiple stimuli were applied (to prolong the release of transmitter), the time-dependent current IOR was more fully activated, resulting in an augmentation of the IPSC. We conclude that the IPSC is caused by both currents and that its amplitude can be modulated by the degree to which IOR is activated. This represents a mechanism by which synaptic responses can be potentiated.