Activation of GABAA receptors (GABAARs) produces two forms of inhibition: ‘phasic’ inhibition generated by the rapid, transient activation of synaptic GABAARs by presynaptic GABA release, and tonic inhibition generated by the persistent activation of peri- or extrasynaptic GABAARs which can detect extracellular GABA. Such tonic GABAAR-mediated currents are particularly evident in dentate granule cells in which they play a major role in regulating cell excitability. Here we show that in rat dentate granule cells in ex-vivo hippocampal slices, tonic currents are predominantly generated by GABA-independent GABAA receptor openings. This tonic GABAAR conductance is resistant to the competitive GABAAR antagonist SR95531, which at high concentrations acts as a partial agonist, but can be blocked by an open channel blocker picrotoxin. When slices are perfused with 200 nM GABA, a concentration that is comparable to cerebrospinal fluid concentrations but is twice that measured by us in the hippocampus in vivo using zero-net-flux microdialysis, negligible GABA is detected by dentate granule cells. Spontaneously opening GABAARs, therefore, maintain dentate granule cell tonic currents in the face of low extracellular GABA concentrations.