ARPP-21 (cAMP-regulated phosphoprotein, Mr = 21,000 as determined by polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis in the presence of sodium dodecyl sulfate), a phosphoprotein substrate for cAMP-dependent protein kinase, is unevenly distributed in adult rat brain. Using immunoblotting and phosphorylation in vitro followed by immunoprecipitation, ARPP-21 was found to be enriched in caudate-putamen, substantia nigra, nucleus accumbens and olfactory tubercle. Intermediate levels were found in cerebral cortex and hippocampus. ARPP-21 was very low in most other brain areas and was not detected in any of the peripheral tissues studied. Following unilateral lesion of the caudate-putamen with quinolinic acid, a marked decrease in the levels of ARPP-21 was observed in both the lesioned caudate-putamen (-75%) and the ipsilateral substantia nigra (-70%) compared with the unlesioned side. This result demonstrates the enrichment of ARPP-21 in striatonigral neurons. In slices of caudate-putamen, substantia nigra or cerebral cortex incubated in vitro, the phosphorylation of ARPP-21 was enhanced by 8-Br-cAMP, a stable analog of cAMP. In striatal slices, forskolin, a compound which stimulates adenylate cyclase directly, enhanced the phosphorylation of ARPP-21 with an EC50 of 0.5 microM. In conclusion, ARPP-21 is a neuron-specific phosphoprotein enriched in specific brain areas which are known to receive a rich dopaminergic innervation and to contain high levels of D1 dopamine receptors. The phosphorylation of ARPP-21 is likely to mediate some of the intracellular effects of neurotransmitters which stimulate adenylate cyclase in these regions, in particular dopamine and vasoactive intestinal peptide.