The reduced progesterone metabolite tetrahydroprogesterone (3 alpha-hydroxy-5 alpha-pregnan-20-one; 3 alpha,5 alpha-THP) is a positive modulator of the gamma-aminobutyric acid type A (GABAA) receptor. Experiments performed in vitro with hypothalamic fragments have previously shown that GABA could modulate the release of gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH). Using GT1-1 immortalized GnRH neurons, we investigated the role of GABAA receptor ligands, including 3 alpha,5 alpha-THP, on the release of GnRH. We first characterized the GABAA receptors expressed by these neurons. [3H]Muscimol, but not [3H]flunitrazepam, bound with high affinity to GT1-1 cell membranes (Kd = 10.9 +/- 0.3 nM; Bmax = 979 +/- 12 fmol/mg of protein), and [3H]muscimol binding was enhanced by 3 alpha,5 alpha-THP. mRNAs encoding the alpha 1 and beta 3 subunits of the GABAA receptor were detected by the reverse transcriptase polymerase chain reaction. In agreement with binding data, the benzodiazepine-binding gamma subunit mRNA was absent. GnRH release studies showed a dose-related stimulating action of muscimol. 3 alpha,5 alpha-THP not only modulated muscimol-induced secretion but also stimulated GnRH release when administered alone. Bicuculline and picrotoxin blocked the effects of 3 alpha,5 alpha-THP and muscimol. Finally, we observed that GT1-1 neurons convert progesterone to 3 alpha,5 alpha-THP. We propose that progesterone may increase the release of GnRH by a membrane mechanism, via its reduced metabolite 3 alpha,5 alpha-THP acting at the GABAA receptor.