Matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs) and their tissue inhibitors (TIMPs) have been implicated in the immense invasive potential and neovascularization of primary brain tumors. We investigated the gene expression profiles of MMPs 1, 2, 3, 7, 9, 12, 13, 14, 16 and of TIMPs 1, 2, 3, and 4 in various primary brain tumors (astrocytoma WHO grade I-III, glioblastoma, PNET, ependymoma III and oligoastrocytoma II) using novel RNase protection assay probe sets. In addition, we determined the level and cellular source of gelatinolytic activity and localized gelatinase B and TIMP-1 RNA. Distinct expression patterns of the MMP and TIMP genes were found in the various brain tumors tested. While the WHO grade I and II tumors had MT1/MT3 ratios below 1, the malignant (grade III and IV) tumors had ratios above 1. Strong expression of TIMP-1 RNA was observed in all malignant tumors and in grade I pilocytic astrocytomas and localized to the walls of neovessels. Quantitative analysis of enzymatic activity in the soluble fraction of protein extracts revealed that in most tumors gelatinases remained in the inactive pro-form. In situ zymography revealed net gelatinolytic activity in neurons of normal brain and in tumor cells and vessel walls of all tumors tested. Immunohistochemistry demonstrated that gelatinase B was localized to vessel walls, to neutrophils in areas of hemorrhage, and in glioblastomas to macrophages. Together these data demonstrate that the different primary brain tumors show distinct regulation of MMP and TIMP genes. The localization of the soluble gelatinase B indicates an association with neovascularization, whereas membrane-bound MMPs may account for the invasive potential of the glial tumor cells.