The postsynaptic effects of acetylcholine in the striatum are largely mediated by muscarinic receptors. Two of the five cloned muscarinic receptors (M1 and M4) are expressed at high levels by the medium spiny neurons-the principal projection neurons of the striatum. Previous studies have suggested that M4 muscarinic receptors are found primarily in medium spiny neurons that express substance P and participate in the "direct" striatonigral pathway. This view is difficult to reconcile with electrophysiological studies suggesting that nearly all medium spiny neurons exhibit responses characteristic of M4 receptors. To explore this apparent discrepancy, the coordinated expression of M1-M5 receptor messenger RNAs in identified medium spiny neurons was assayed using single-cell reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction techniques. Nearly all medium spiny neurons had detectable levels of M1 receptor messenger RNA. Although M4 receptor messenger RNA was detected more frequently in substance P-expressing neurons (70%), it was readily seen in a substantial population of enkephalin-expressing neurons (50%). To provide a quantitative estimate of transcript abundance, quantitative reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction experiments were performed. These studies revealed that M4 messenger RNA was expressed by both substance P and enkephalin neurons, but was roughly five-fold higher in abundance in substance P-expressing neurons. This quantitative difference provides a means of reconciling previous estimates of M4 receptor distribution and function.