The distribution and levels of glutamate metabotropic binding sites were investigated in the hippocampal region of the human brain using quantitative autoradiography in normal subjects and patients with Alzheimer's disease. The topography of glutamate metabotropic binding sites was contrasted with those for kainate and 2-amino-3-hydroxy-5-methylisoxazole-4-propionic acid (AMPA) in adjacent sections from the same subjects. The regional distribution of glutamate metabotropic binding and AMPA binding were similar, being most abundant in the subiculum and CA1 region and lower in the CA3 region. The distribution of kainate binding differed from that of metabotropic binding being greatest in the deep layers of the parahippocampal gyrus and CA3 and lower in the subiculum and CA1. There were regionally distinct reductions in these non-N-methyl-D-aspartate (non-NMDA) binding sites in patients with Alzheimer's disease. Glutamate metabotropic. AMPA and kainate binding were each markedly reduced in the subiculum and the magnitude of the change correlated with neuronal loss within the subiculum. Glutamate metabotropic binding and AMPA binding were reduced significantly in CA1 in subjects with Alzheimer's disease whereas kainate binding was minimally altered in this region. Kainate and AMPA binding were reduced significantly in the parahippocampal gyrus in Alzheimer's disease while glutamate metabotropic binding was not. In a number of hippocampal areas (e.g. dentate gyrus, CA3), the binding of all ligands was minimally altered in Alzheimer's disease. These differences may reflect the localisation of the three types of glutamate binding sites on neuronal elements which are differentially susceptible to the neurodegenerative process of Alzheimer's disease.