Subpopulations of alpha-amino-3-hydroxy-5-methylisoxazole-4-propionic acid (AMPA) receptors that are either permeable or impermeable to Ca2+ are expressed on dorsal horn neurons in culture. While both mediate synaptic transmission, the Ca2+ -permeable AMPA receptors provide a Ca2+ signal that may result in a transient change in synaptic strength [Gu, J.G., Albuquerque, C., Lee, C.J. & MacDermott, A.B. (1996) Nature, 381, 793]. To appreciate the relevance of these receptors to dorsal horn physiology, we have investigated whether they show selective expression in identified subpopulations of dorsal horn neurons. Expression of Ca2+-permeable AMPA receptors was assayed using the kainate-induced cobalt loading technique first developed by Pruss et al. [Pruss, R.M., Akeson, R.L., Racke, M.M. & Wilburn, J.L. (1991) Neuron, 7, 509]. Subpopulations of dorsal horn neurons were identified using immunocytochemistry for gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), glycine, substance P receptor (NK1 receptor) and the Ca2+-binding proteins, calretinin and calbindin D28K. We demonstrate that, in dorsal horn neurons in culture, kainate-induced cobalt uptake is selectively mediated by Ca2+-permeable AMPA receptors, and that a majority of GABA and NK1 receptor-expressing neurons express Ca2+-permeable AMPA receptors. GABAergic dorsal horn neurons are important in local inhibition as well as in the regulation of transmitter release from primary afferent terminals. NK1 receptor-expressing dorsal horn neurons include many of the projection neurons in the nociceptive spino-thalamic pathway. Thus, we have identified two populations of dorsal horn neurons representing important components of dorsal horn function that express Ca2+-permeable AMPA receptors. Furthermore, we show that several subpopulations of putative excitatory interneurons defined by calretinin and calbindin expression do not express Ca2+-permeable AMPA receptors.