Previous studies have suggested that insulin may play a role in the hormonal regulation of neurotransmitter metabolisms within the central nervous system. In order to provide additional information to support this hypothesis, we examined the distribution of insulin receptors within the forebrain of adult male rats. Insulin receptors were localized by immunocytochemistry, using an antibody directed against the carboxy-terminus of the beta-subunit of the insulin receptor. The antibody specificity was tested by immunoprecipitation of brain insulin receptors with antiserum and the purity of the receptor-antibody preparation was determined using hormone binding-assays with radiolabeled insulin and insulin-like growth factor-l. Insulin receptor-like immunoreactivity was found in a widespread, but selective, distribution on neurons throughout the rat forebrain. Double-labeling with glial fibrillary acidic protein did not demonstrate any detectable insulin receptor-like immunoreactivity on glial cells. Areas with the highest density of insulin receptor-like immunoreactivity were found in the olfactory bulbs, hypothalamus and median eminence, medial habenula, subthalamic nucleus, subfornical organ, CA 1/2 pyramidal cell layer of the hippocampus and piriform cortex. Double-staining of hypothalamic sections with somatostatin and vasopressin antisera revealed insulin receptor-like immunoreactivity on a subpopulation of somatostatin neurons in the periventricular region and on vasopressin neurons in the supraoptic nucleus. A moderately dense insulin receptor-like immunoreactivity was observed in layers II-IV of cerebral cortex, medial amygdala, reticular thalamic nucleus, zona incerta, and preoptic and septal regions, whereas a low density of insulin receptor-like immunoreactive neurons was found in basolateral amygdala and most thalamic regions. The basal ganglia and most parts of the thalamus were almost devoid of insulin receptor-like immunoreactivity. Our findings provide morphological support for a direct action of insulin on selected regions of the rat forebrain and suggest that the insulin receptor may modulate synaptic transmission or the release of neurotransmitters and peptide hormones in the CNS.