Voltage-gated K+ channels in the mammalian brain are functionally heterogeneous. Mechanisms which may underlie heterogeneity are the expression of multiple K+ channel subunit genes, alternative splicing and the formation of heteromultimers from different subunits. To examine the molecular basis of regional and cell-specific K+ channel expression in rat brain in situ hybridization techniques were used. The transcript distribution patterns of 11 cloned mammalian K+ channel genes encoding both slow- and fast-inactivating K+ channels from four different gene families were examined at different stages of development. The results show that each subunit-specific messenger RNA (mRNA) is independently expressed and is characterized by an individual expression pattern. In the hippocampal formation transcripts of RCK2, RCK3, RCK4, RCK5, Raw3 and rat Shal genes are heterogeneously expressed and regulated during postnatal development. RCK1, Raw1, Raw2 and DRK1 mRNAs, on the other hand, are present in the hippocampus throughout postnatal life. The expression patterns of the 11 genes partially overlap, suggesting the formation of different heteromultimeric K+ channel complexes.