Little is known about the expression of the receptor for complement anaphylatoxin C3a (C3aR) in the central nervous system (CNS). In this study, we provide the first evidence that neurons are the predominant cell type expressing C3aR in the normal CNS. By using in situ hybridization (ISH) and immunohistochemistry, we found that C3aR is constitutively expressed at high levels in cortical and hippocampal neurons as well as in Purkinje cells. Moreover, we showed that primary culture of human astrocytes and microglia express the C3aR mRNA as assessed by RT-PCR. In situ hybridization performed on rat primary astrocytes confirmed the RT-PCR result demonstrating C3aR expression by astrocytes. In experimental allergic encephalitis (EAE), C3aR expression was elevated on microglia, infiltrating monocyte-macrophage cells and a few astrocytes, whereas neuronal expression remained unchanged during the course of the disease. These data demonstrate that the C3aR is expressed primarily by neurons in the normal CNS and that its neuronal expression is not dramatically upregulated under inflammation. This is in contrast to the increased neuronal expression of the C5aR in several inflammatory CNS conditions. The high constitutive expression of the C3aR by neurons suggests this receptor may play an important role in normal physiological conditions in the CNS.