Using a solution hybridization-S1 nuclease protection assay, we quantitatively studied tyrosine hydroxylase mRNA (mRNATH) in catecholaminergic cells of the substantia nigra, hypothalamus, superior cervical ganglion, and adrenal of male rats from early neonatal life to old age. Throughout this time, the lowest level of mRNATH in any tissue was found in the youngest animals, and their development was associated with an increase in the quantity of mRNATH. However, the extent of the increase as well as the pattern of change was dependent on the tissue. The amount of mRNATH in the substantia nigra of 1-day-old pups was 162 +/- 7 attomoles (mean and S.E.M.), increasing to 877 +/- 39 amol at 14 days of age. Then, the amount fell to 480 +/- 25 amol at 6 weeks of age, but changed little between 6 weeks and 23 months of age. In the hypothalamus of 1-day-old pups, the quantity of mRNATH was 24 +/- 3 amol, increasing to 60 +/- 6 amol at 2 weeks and changed little thereafter. mRNATH in the superior cervical ganglion increased gradually until 10 months of age; at which time the amount was 3 times that of neonatal animals. In the adrenal, mRNATH increased continuously throughout the period of observation. The amount of mRNATH in the adrenal of 23-month-old animals was 25 times that in the adrenal of 4-day-old pups. These data suggest that tyrosine hydroxylase gene expression does not diminish in aged rats.