Drug interactions with 5-HT1 (5-hydroxytryptamine type 1) binding site subtypes were analyzed in rat frontal cortex. 8-Hydroxy-N,N-dipropyl-2-aminotetralin (8-OH-DPAT) displays high affinity (Ki 3.3 +/- 1 nM) for 29 +/- 3% of total [3H]5-HT binding in rat frontal cortex and low affinity (Ki 9,300 +/- 1,000) for 71 +/- 4% of the remaining 5-HT1 sites. Therefore, non-5-HT1A binding in rat frontal cortex was defined as specific [3H]5-HT binding observed in the presence of 100 nM 8-OH-DPAT. 5-Methoxy 3-(1,2,3,6-tetrahydro-4-pyridinyl) 1 H indole (RU 24969), 1-(m-trifluoromethylphenyl)piperazine (TFMPP), mianserin, and methysergide produce shallow competition curves of [3H]5-HT binding from non-5-HT1A sites. Addition of 10(-3) M GTP does not increase the apparent Hill slopes of these competition curves. Computer-assisted iterative curve fitting suggests that these drugs can discriminate two distinct subpopulations of non-5-HT1A binding sites, each representing approximately 35% of the total [3H]5-HT binding in the rat frontal cortex. All three 5-HT1 binding site subtypes display nanomolar affinity for 5-HT and 5-methoxytryptamine. A homogeneous population of 5-HT1A sites can be directly labeled using [3H]8-OH-DPAT. These sites display nanomolar affinity for 8-OH-DPAT, WB 4101, RU 24969, 2-(4-[4-(2-pyrimidinyl)-1-piperazinyl] butyl)-1,2-benzisothiazol-3-(2H)one-1, 1-dioxidehydrochloride (TVX Q 7821), 5-methoxydimethyltryptamine, and d-lysergic acid diethylamide. The potencies of RU 24969, TFMPP, and quipazine for [3H]5-HT binding are increased by addition of 100 nM 8-OH-DPAT and 3,000 nM mianserin to the [3H]5-HT binding assay. Moreover, the drugs have apparent Hill slopes near 1 under these conditions. This subpopulation of total [3H]5-HT binding is designated 5-HT1B. By contrast, methysergide and mianserin become more potent inhibitors of residual [3H]5-HT binding to non-5-HT1A sites in the presence of 100 nM 8-OH-DPAT and 10 nM RU 24969. The drug competition curves under these conditions have apparent Hill slopes of near unity and these sites are designated 5-HT1C. Drug competition studies using a series of 24 agents reveals that each 5-HT1 subtype site has a unique pharmacological profile. These results suggest that radioligand studies can be used to differentiate three distinct subpopulations of 5-HT1 binding sites labeled by [3H]5-HT in rat frontal cortex.