Although many G-protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs) may display constitutive activity, their detection has, to date, depended on the use of inverse agonists. The present study exploited a novel procedure to investigate constitutive activity at recombinant human (h) serotonin (5-HT) 5-HT(1D) receptors stably expressed in Chinese hamster ovary (CHO) cells. 5-HT modestly stimulated guanosine-5'-O-(3-[(35)S]thio)-triphosphate ([(35)S]-GTPgammaS) binding to CHO-h5-HT(1D) membranes whereas methiothepin and the 5-HT(1B/1D)-selective ligand, SB224,289, exerted robust inhibition of basal [(35)S]-GTPgammaS binding (inverse agonism). These actions were specific inasmuch as they were reversed by the novel, selective 5-HT(1B/1D) ligand, S18127. Constitutive activity was investigated by homologous inhibition of [(35)S]-GTPgammaS binding to CHO-h5-HT(1D) membranes with unlabelled GTPgammaS. Under 'basal' conditions (absence of receptor ligand), biphasic isotherms were observed. Most (80%) [(35)S]-GTPgammaS binding sites were in the high affinity (HA) versus low affinity (LA) component of the isotherms. HA binding was augmented by 5-HT (to 155%; relative to basal values=100%), but decreased by methiothepin (to 23%) and by SB224,289 (to 67%). In contrast, LA binding was not altered. Further, membranes of untransfected CHO cells exhibited only LA binding sites, indicating that the latter are not related to h5-HT(1D) receptor-G-protein coupling. Thus, at 5-HT(1D) receptors expressed in this CHO cell line, HA binding detected in homologous inhibition experiments (GTPgammaS versus [(35)S]-GTPgammaS) under basal conditions provides a measure of constitutive G-protein activation. Thus, it is suggested that for h5-HT(1D) receptors and, possibly, other GPCRs, inverse agonists will be detectable by [(35)S]-GTPgammaS binding if a HA component is present under basal conditions.