The activity of neurons in the subthalamic nucleus controls various aspects of movement. The present study examined the action of dopamine receptor agonists on c-fos gene expression in the subthalamic nucleus in normal rats. We found that systemic administration of the dopamine D1/5 receptor agonist, SKF 82958 (1 mg/kg), induces c-fos expression in the subthalamic nucleus. In contrast, systemic administration of the dopamine D2/3 receptor agonist, quinelorane (2 mg/kg) had no effect. When combined, SKF 82958 and quinelorane induced c-fos expression in subthalamic neurons that was similar to that found following administration of SKF 82958 alone. We also examined c-fos expression in the substantia nigra pars reticulata, the major projection area for subthalamic neurons, and found that SKF 82958, but not quinelorane, caused an induction of c-fos expression in this area. In order to clarify the mechanisms underlying the SKF 82958-mediated induction of c-fos expression in the subthalamic nucleus and substantia nigra pars reticulata, in situ hybridization for the dopamine D1, D2, D3 and D5 receptor mRNAs was performed. The only significant observation was that D5 receptor mRNA is expressed in subthalamic neurons. The present data show that dopamine, via D1/D5 receptors, upregulates c-fos expression in subthalamic neurons, and that the high expression of D5 receptors in this area might be involved. Taken together, these data suggest that dopamine D1/5 receptors are more important for the action of dopamine in the so-called indirect pathway of the basal ganglia circuitry than what is recognized in current models of basal ganglia organization.