The lateral geniculate nucleus (LGN) receives input from the retina that is spatially organized into a receptive-field center and surround. It maintains this organization in the signal that it sends to the visual cortex. Previous studies have focused on changes in the receptive-field 'surround' that are generated at the LGN, possibly as a local contrast enhancement mechanism. The present study suggests a role for the LGN in regulating the receptive-field center sensitivity under the control of GABAergic circuitry. Local microiontophoresis of the GABAA receptor antagonist bicuculline increased the contrast sensitivity of LGN relay cells to many spatial frequencies. Difference of Gaussians analysis showed that the increase was due to an increased sensitivity of the receptive-field center. Similar increases in receptive-field center sensitivity may be produced during behavioral arousal by the action of pontine and mesencephalic pathways upon the activity of the LGN GABAergic circuitry. © 1989.