Although the conductance and kinetic behavior of inhibitory synaptic channels have been studied in a number of nerve and muscle cells, there has been little if any detailed study of such channels at synapses in the vertebrate central nervous system or of the relation of such channels to natural synaptic events. In the experiments reported here, current noise measurements were used to obtain such information at synapses on Muller cells in the lamprey brainstem. Application of glycine to the cells activated synaptic channels with large conductances and relaxation time constants (70 picosiemens and 33 milliseconds, respectively, at 3 degrees to 10 degrees C). Spontaneous inhibitory synaptic currents had a mean conductance of 107 nanosiemens and decayed with the same time constant. In addition, the glycine responses and the spontaneous currents had the same reversal potential and both were abolished by strychnine. These results support the idea that glycine is the natural inhibitory transmitter at these synapses and suggest that one quantum of transmitter activates about 1500 elementary conductance channels.