The Genetic Absence Epilepsy Rats from Strasbourg (GAERS) are an inbred strain of rats that display many of the characteristics of human absence epilepsy. In these rats, reciprocal thalamocortical projections play a critical role in the generation of spike-and-wave discharges that characterize absence seizures. When compared to those of the non-epileptic control strain, juvenile animals of the GAERS strain reportedly possess higher-amplitude T-type calcium currents in neurons of the thalamic reticular nucleus (nRt). We hypothesized that differences in calcium currents seen between GAERS and controls result from differences in expression of genes for low-voltage-activated calcium channels. Quantitative in situ hybridization was used to compare expression of alpha1G, alpha1H, alpha1I, and alpha1E calcium channel subunit mRNAs from adult and juvenile animals of the two strains. We found higher levels of alpha1H mRNA expression in nRt neurons of juvenile animals (34.9+/-2. 3 vs. 28.4+/-1.8 grains/10(3) pixels, p<0.05), perhaps accounting in part for earlier reports of elevated T-type current amplitude in those cells. In adult GAERS animals, we found elevated levels of alpha1G mRNA in neurons of the ventral posterior thalamic relay nuclei (64.8+/-3.5 vs. 53.5+/-1.7 grains/10(3) pixels, p<0.05), as well as higher levels of alpha1H mRNA in nRt neurons (32.6+/-0.8 vs. 28.2+/-1.6 grains/10(3) pixels, p<0.05). These results suggest that the epileptic phenotype apparent in adult GAERS may result in part from these significant, albeit small ( approximately 15-25%), elevations in T-type calcium channel mRNA levels.