The benzodiazepines flunitrazepam, diazepam, and Ro 15-1788 and the beta-carboline DMCM bind with equivalent affinity to the benzodiazepine binding site of GABAA receptors containing different alpha subunits (i.e., alpha 1, alpha 2, alpha 3, or alpha 5); whereas, the triazolopyridazine CL 218,872 and imidazopyridine zolpidem have higher affinity for alpha 1 subunit-containing GABAA receptors. In the present study, the in vivo binding of [3H]Ro 15-1788 in mouse cerebellum and spinal cord was used to establish the occupancy of the benzodiazepine binding site of GABAA receptors containing primarily alpha 1 and alpha 2/alpha 3 subunits, respectively. Thus, the nonselective compounds flunitrazepam, diazepam, and DMCM all produced a similar inhibition of binding in cerebellum and spinal cord (respective ID50 values of 0.2 to 0.3 mg/kg, 2 mg/kg, and 10 mg/kg i.p.); whereas, the alpha 1 selective compounds CL 218,872 and zolpidem were more potent at inhibiting [3H]Ro 15-1788 binding in the cerebellum (ID50 values 4.5 mg/kg and 10 mg/kg i.p.) compared to the spinal cord (ID50 values 12 mg/kg and > 30 mg/kg i.p.). Thus, the reduction of in vivo f[3H]Ro 15-1788 binding in tissues containing alpha 1 and alpha 2/alpha 3 receptor populations reflects the in vitro affinities of subtype selective compounds and should help to interpret the behavioral profile of such compounds.