The development of GABAergic neurons in the spinal cord of the rat has been investigated by immunocytochemical staining of frozen sections with anti-gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) antiserum. In the cervical cord, GABA-immunoreactive fibers first appeared at embryonic day (E) 13 in the presumptive white matter within the ventral commissure, ventral funiculus, and dorsal root entrance zone, and in the ventral roots. There were no GABA-immunoreactive cell bodies detected at this age. By E14, motoneurons, the earliest generated spinal cells, were the first cell population to become GABA-immunoreactive at the cell body level. Thereafter, GABA-immunoreactive neurons increased progressively in number and extended from ventral to dorsal regions. GABA-immunoreactive relay neurons within lamina I of the dorsal horn were initially detected at E17. Interneurons in the substantia gelatinosa, the latest generated cells in the spinal cord, were also the last to express the GABA immunoreactivity at E18. Immunoreactive neurons peaked in intensity and extent at E18 and 19. GABA immunoreactivity was only detectable in neurons within the intermediate and marginal zones 1-3 days after they withdrew from the cell cycle. This contrasts to glutamate decarboxylase immunoreactivity, which is detected in precursor cells in the ventricular zone prior to, or during, withdrawal from the cell cycle. Toward the end of gestation, GABA immunoreactivity declined in intensity and extent. This regression began in the ventral horn of the cervical region and ended in the dorsal horn of the lumbosacral region. During the first week after birth, immunoreactivity in motoneurons and in many other neurons within the ventral horn, intermediate gray, and deeper layers of the dorsal horn disappeared, and only in those neurons predominantly within the superficial layers of the dorsal horn did it persist into adulthood. Thus, the expression and regression of GABA immunoreactivity in the spinal cord followed ventral-to-dorsal, rostral-to-caudal, and medial-to-lateral gradients. These observations indicate that the majority of embryonic spinal neurons pass through a stage of transient expression of GABA immunoreactivity. The functional significance of this transient expression is unknown, but it coincides with the period of intense neurite growth of motoneurons, sensory neurons, and interneurons, and of neuromuscular junction formation, suggesting that the transient presence of GABA may play an important role in the differentiation of sensorimotor neuronal circuits.