In order to identify likely sites of action in insulin in rat brain we have used the technique of in vitro autoradiography and computerized densitometry to map, characterize, and quantify its receptors in coronal and sagittal sections. A discrete and characteristic distribution of insulin receptor binding was demonstrated, with specific binding representing 92% of total binding. Displacement and specificity competition curves in olfactory bulb are typical for authentic insulin receptors, and computer analysis indicates a single class of binding site with a dissociation constant (Kd) 0.48 nM for choroid plexus and 0.44 nM for olfactory bulb external plexiform layer. Insulin receptor density is maximum in the choroid plexus, and high in the external plexiform layer of olfactory bulb. Structures of the limbic system and hypothalamus reveal moderate to high insulin receptor density, particularly the lateral septum, amygdala, subiculum, hippocampal CA1 region, mammillary body, and arcuate nucleus. Moderate insulin receptor density occurs in regions of cerebral cortex and cerebellum, and moderate to low binding occurs in discrete brainstem and midbrain structures. Insulin binding in the pituitary gland is greatest in the anterior lobe, with clear distinction from intermediate and posterior lobes. The circumventricular organs and the thalamus show low insulin binding. We conclude that insulin receptors are widespread throughout rat brain, with concentration in regions concerned with olfaction, appetite, and autonomic functions. The distribution is distinct from other neuropeptides and not related to either vascularity or cell density. A common feature of regions rich in insulin receptors is that they contain dendritic fields receiving rich synaptic input. Whether insulin plays a specific neurotransmitter or metabolic role in these sites remains unclear, but these studies have provided detailed information on potential sites of action of insulin in the brain, and will allow further studies to examine insulin receptor function in specific brain regions.