The messenger RNA (mRNA) of the recently characterized D3 dopamine receptor was visualized on rat brain sections using in situ hybridization with a 32P-labeled ribonucleic acid probe corresponding to a major part of the third cytoplasmic loop, a domain in which D2 and D3 dopamine receptors display little homology. For the purpose of comparison, D2 receptor mRNA was also specifically visualized on adjacent sections. The areas that expressed D2 and/or D3 receptors were also compared with those previously detected using [125I]iodosulpride, a ligand that binds to both D2 and D3 receptors with a similar affinity. The localization of D3 receptor mRNa markedly differs from that of D2 receptor mRNA. Whereas D2 receptor mRNA is expressed in all major brain areas receiving dopaminergic projections, particularly in the whole striatal complex, D3 receptor mRNA is expressed in a more restricted manner. It is mainly detected in telencephalic areas receiving dopaminergic inputs from the A10 cell group, e.g. accumbens nucleus, islands of Calleja, bed nucleus of the stria terminalis and other limbic areas such as the hippocampus and the mammillary nuclei. D2 and D3 receptor mRNAs were also detected at the level of the substantia nigra, suggesting that these receptors function as both autoreceptor and postsynaptic receptors. In several dopaminergic projection areas, e.g. ventral straitum, septal or mammillary nuclei, the distributions of D2 and D3 receptor mRNAs appeared complementary without overlap. The distribution of [125I]iodosulpride binding sites generally overlapped that of D2 or D3 receptor mRNAs, the latter being most abundant in dopaminergic areas known to be associated with cognitive and emotional functions.