A single type of high-affinity binding sites for IL-1 beta was identified in the rat hypothalamus (Kd = 1.0 +/- 0.2 nM) and cerebral cortex (Kd = 1.3 +/- 0.2 nM), but not in the pituitary. The maximum binding capacity (Bmax) in the hypothalamus (Bmax = 75.4 +/- 10.8 fmol/mg protein) was 4 times greater than in the cerebral cortex (Bmax = 17.2 +/- 1.5 fmol/mg protein). Neither various neuropeptides nor IL-2 appeared to influence the binding of [125I]IL-1 beta to the hypothalamic membrane preparations. The potency of unlabeled IL-1 alpha to replace the binding of [125I]IL-1 beta to the hypothalamic membrane preparations was considerably less than that of unlabeled IL-1 beta. These findings indicate that IL-1 beta receptors are heterogeneously distributed in the central nervous system and that IL-1 alpha does not bind with IL-1 beta receptors in the brain.