The distribution and localization of the pituitary adenylate cyclase-activating polypeptide (PACAP) receptor the PAC1 receptor (previously called the type 1 PACAP receptor or PVR1), which binds PACAP, but not vasoactive intestinal peptide, with high affinity] were first investigated in rats with in situ hybridization for its messenger RNA, and with immunohistochemical methods during prenatal and postnatal development. The expression of PACAP receptor messenger RNA was first detected in the rat embryo at the primitive streak stage as early as embryonic day 9, and it was intensely expressed in the neural plate. PACAP receptor messenger RNA was also intensely expressed in the neuroepithelia of the mesencephalon and rhombencephalon at embryonic day 11, and expressed in the basal telencephalon, hippocampal formation neuroepithelium, cortical neuroepithelium and cerebellar neuroepithelium after embryonic day 13. It was also expressed in the olfactory bulb neuroepithelium after embryonic day 16, and in mature regions of the older embryos. In postnatal developing brains, PACAP receptor messenger RNA was intensely expressed in the olfactory bulb, hippocampal formation, cerebellum and other scattered regions. The localization of PACAP receptor-like immunoreactivity coincided well with that of the gene transcripts. We also used reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction methods to determine the expression of the splice variants of the PACAP receptor gene. At each ontogenetic stage of the rat from embryonic day 9 to postnatal day 60, two major products were detected with reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction, a thick band (303 base pairs) corresponding to the short splice variant of the receptor that lacks both the "hip" and "hop" cassettes, and a thin band (387 base pairs) corresponding to the splice variant that contains one cassette of "hop" or "hip". There was no evidence for the other larger splice variants. Some of the amplified products were sequenced and found to have the exact sequences of "PACAP receptor" and "PACAP receptor-hopl", which are coupled to different signal transduction pathways. These results indicate that the PACAP receptor is actively expressed in different neuroepithelia from early developmental stages and expressed in various brain regions during prenatal and postnatal development, and that the major splice variants are "PACAP receptor" and "PACAP receptor-hopl". The initial mapping of ontogenetic localization of the PACAP receptor provides the basis for a better understanding of the functions of PACAP and its receptors during the development of the brain.