1. Serotonin 5-HT(1B) receptors couple to G-proteins of the Gi/o family. However, their activation of specific G-protein subtypes is poorly characterised. Using an innovative antibody capture/guanosine-5'-0-(3-[(35)S]thio)-triphosphate ([(35)S]GTPgammaS) binding strategy, we characterised Galpha(i3) subunit activation by h5-HT(1B) receptors stably expressed in Chinese hamster ovary (CHO) cells. 2. The agonists, 5-HT, alniditan and BMS181,101, stimulated Galpha(i3), whereas methiothepin and SB224,289 behaved as inverse agonists. The selective 5-HT(1B) receptor ligand, S18127, modestly stimulated Galpha(i3) and reversed the actions of both 5-HT and methiothepin. S18127 (1 micro M) also produced parallel, dextral shifts of the 5-HT and methiothepin isotherms. 3. Isotopic dilution experiments ([(35)S]GTPgammaS versus GTPgammaS) revealed high-affinity [(35)S]GTPgammaS binding to Galpha(i3) subunits in the absence of receptor ligands indicating constitutive activity. High-affinity [(35)S]GTPgammaS binding was increased 2.8-fold by 5-HT with an increase in the affinity of GTPgammaS for Galpha(i3) subunits. In contrast, methiothepin halved the number of high-affinity binding sites and decreased their affinity. 4. h5-HT(1B) receptor-mediated Galpha(i3) subunit activation was dependent on the concentration of NaCl. At 300 mM, 5-HT stimulated [(35)S]GTPgammaS binding, basal Galpha(i3) activation was low and methiothepin was inactive. In contrast, at 10 mM NaCl, basal activity was enhanced and the inverse agonist activity of methiothepin was accentuated. Under these conditions, 5-HT decreased Galpha(i3) activation. 5. In conclusion, at h5-HT(1B) receptors expressed in CHO cells (i) inverse agonist induced inhibition of Galpha(i3), and its reversal by S18127, reveals constitutive activation of this Galpha subunit; (ii) constitutive Galpha(i3) activation can be quantified by isotopic dilution [(35)S]GTPgammaS binding and (iii) decreasing NaCl concentrations enhances Galpha(i3) activation and leads to protean agonist properties of 5-HT that is a switch to inhibition of Galpha(i3).