Fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH) and monoglyceride lipase (MGL) catalyse the hydrolysis of the endocannabinoids anandamide and 2-arachidonoyl glycerol. We investigated their ultrastructural distribution in brain areas where the localization and effects of cannabinoid receptor activation are known. In the hippocampus, FAAH was present in somata and dendrites of principal cells, but not in interneurons. It was located mostly on the membrane surface of intracellular organelles known to store Ca(2+) (e.g. mitochondria, smooth endoplasmic reticulum), less frequently on the somatic or dendritic plasma membrane. MGL immunoreactivity was found in axon terminals of granule cells, CA3 pyramidal cells and some interneurons. In the cerebellum, Purkinje cells and their dendrites are intensively immunoreactive for FAAH, together with a sparse axon plexus at the border of the Purkinje cell/granule cell layers. Immunostaining for MGL was complementary, the axons in the molecular layer were intensively labelled leaving the Purkinje cell dendrites blank. FAAH distribution in the amygdala was similar to that of the CB(1) cannabinoid receptor: evident signal in neuronal somata and proximal dendrites in the basolateral nucleus, and hardly any labelling in the central nucleus. MGL staining was restricted to axons in the neuropil, with similar relative signal intensities seen for FAAH in different nuclei. Thus, FAAH is primarily a postsynaptic enzyme, whereas MGL is presynaptic. FAAH is associated with membranes of cytoplasmic organelles. The differential compartmentalization of the two enzymes suggests that anandamide and 2-AG signalling may subserve functional roles that are spatially segregated at least at the stage of metabolism.