[3H]Paroxetine binding to human brain tissue was characterized. Competition studies in the putamen and frontal cortex revealed single-site binding models for binding sensitive to 5-hydroxytryptamine (5-HT) (Ki 1-3 microM) and citalopram (Ki 0.6 nM), which displaced the same amount of binding. However, desipramine, norzimeldine and fluoxetine displaced additional binding (10-20%) and these competitors fitted two-site binding models with high affinity components in the nanomolar range and low affinity components in the micromolar range. The high affinity components approximated the 5-HT- and citalopram-sensitive binding fraction. Most of the [3H]paroxetine binding sites were protease-sensitive, but the low-affinity (microM) sites appeared to be protease-resistant. Based on these findings, only the [3H]paroxetine binding representing the fraction sensitive to 30 microM 5-HT (or e.g. 0.3 microM norzimeldine), was regarded as specific binding. This binding fraction was saturable with an apparent binding affinity (Kd) of 0.03-0.05 nM throughout the brain. The highest binding densities were obtained in the hypothalamus and substantia nigra (Bmax 500 fmol/mg protein). The basal ganglia reached intermediate densities (Bmax 200 fmol/mg protein), whereas cortical areas had low Bmax values (less than 100 fmol/mg protein). The lowest B max value was noted in cerebellar cortex (30 fmol/mg protein). The [3H]paroxetine binding was competitively inhibited by low concentrations of 5-HT, imipramine and norzimeldine, suggesting that the substrate recognition site for 5-HT uptake was labeled. Compounds active at dopaminergic, noradrenergic, histaminergic, 5-HT1, 5-HT2 and cholinergic muscarinic sites did not affect the binding at 100 microM concentrations. It is concluded that [3H]paroxetine is a marker for the 5-HT uptake site in the human brain, provided that an adequate pharmacological definition of specific binding is performed.