Histamine H(2) receptor expression was studied in adult and developing rat brain. Northern blot and in situ hybridizations indicated that histamine H(2) receptor messenger RNA expression is widespread and not limited to neurons in the adult rat brain. Prominent H(2) receptor expression in the adult brain was seen in the dentate gyrus, hippocampal subfields CA1-CA3, piriform cortex and in some diencephalic nuclei, e.g. in the suprachiasmatic nucleus and the red nucleus. Most of the adult brain nuclei displayed a very low H(2) receptor expression. Histamine H(2) receptor was also expressed during development in widespread areas of the central nervous system, coinciding with the transient production of histamine in the raphe neurons at embryonic day 15. From embryonic days 16 and 17 until birth, histamine H(2) receptor expression in the cortical plate coincided with the development and sprouting of histaminergic fibers into the cerebral cortex. The widespread and diffuse expression of histamine H(2) receptors in the adult rat brain suggests that the H(2) receptor modulates the excitability of neuron and astrocyte functions in many brain areas rather than mediating targeted cell-to-cell signals. During development, histamine H(2) receptor expression is seen in several target areas for the histaminergic fibers. This could indicate that histamine, through the H(2) receptor, regulates fetal development of the brain.