Dopaminergic neurons are subject to a significant background GABAergic input in vivo. The presence of this GABAergic background might be expected to inhibit dopaminergic neuron firing. However, dopaminergic neurons are not all silent but instead fire in single-spiking and burst firing modes. Here we present evidence that phasic changes in the tonic activity of GABAergic afferents are a potential extrinsic mechanism that triggers bursts and pauses in dopaminergic neurons. We find that spontaneous single-spiking is more sensitive to activation of GABA receptors than phasic N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA)-mediated burst firing in rat slices (P15-P31). Because tonic activation of GABA(A) receptors has previously been shown to suppress burst firing in vivo, our results suggest that the activity patterns seen in vivo are the result of a balance between excitatory and inhibitory conductances that interact with the intrinsic pacemaking currents observed in slices. Using the dynamic clamp technique, we applied balanced, constant NMDA and GABA(A) receptor conductances into dopaminergic neurons in slices. Bursts could be produced by disinhibition (phasic removal of the GABA(A) receptor conductance), and these bursts had a higher frequency than bursts produced by the same NMDA receptor conductance alone. Phasic increases in the GABA(A) receptor conductance evoked pauses in firing. In contrast to NMDA receptor, application of constant AMPA and GABA(A) receptor conductances caused the cell to go into depolarization block. These results support a bidirectional mechanism by which GABAergic inputs, in balance with NMDA receptor-mediated excitatory inputs, control the firing pattern of dopaminergic neurons.