Treatment with pentobarbital of primary cultured cerebellar granule cells decreased the gamma-aminobutyric acid, (GABA)A receptor subunit gamma-2 long/short (gamma-2L/S) mRNA ratio. A high dose of pentobarbital (500 microM) decreased the gamma-2L/S ratio by 64%; the decrease was dose and time dependent and reversible. (-)-Hexobarbital (500 microM), the less potent stereoisomer for GABA(A) receptor activation, decreased the ratio slightly (30%) but significantly more than (+)-hexobarbital (20%). Other GABA(A) receptor activators had no (100 mM ethanol) or little (2 microM 5alpha-pregnane-3alpha-ol-20-one) effect on the gamma-2L/S ratio. Furthermore, picrotoxin (10 microM), which blocks the GABA- and pentobarbital-activated GABA(A) receptor channel, neither changed the gamma-2L/S ratio nor blocked the pentobarbital-induced changes. These data suggest that barbiturates alter the gamma-2L/S mRNA ratio by a mechanism that does not require GABA(A) receptor activation. The gamma-2L/S subunit mRNA includes an exon encoding an octapeptide that contains a protein kinase C phosphorylation consensus site. This exon-encoded peptide, occurring in the putative intracellular loop, can be phosphorylated, and in vitro, this phosphorylation has been shown to have functional consequences. This is the first report of a drug-induced alteration in receptor mRNA splicing. Furthermore, the changes in the gamma-2L/S ratio produced by pentobarbital exposure may have significant effects on the function of an important brain protein, the GABA(A) receptor.