Nitric oxide is a novel signalling molecule in the brain and a potent activator of the cyclic GMP-synthesising enzyme, soluble guanylate cyclase. To determine if stimulation of cyclic GMP formation is a widespread mechanism of nitric oxide signal transduction, we have compared the distribution of the nitric oxide-generating enzyme (nitric oxide synthase) with that of nitric oxide-stimulated cyclic GMP accumulation, throughout the rat brain. The former was done using NADPH diaphorase histochemistry and the latter by cyclic GMP immunohistochemistry following perfusion of the nitric oxide donor, nitroprusside, in vivo. At a gross level, there was generally a good match when the two were compared in adjacent sections. Although the relative staining intensity varied from area to area, in no grey matter region did we observe cyclic GMP accumulation in the absence of nitric oxide synthase staining. In detail, the locations were complementary rather than identical. In some areas, nitric oxide synthase was found in postsynaptic structures and cyclic GMP accumulation in presynaptic elements and fibres; in others, the locations were reversed. Glial cells and their processes also accumulated cyclic GMP in the cerebellum. The results suggest that soluble guanylate cyclase is a major nitric oxide "receptor" throughout the brain. They also support the hypothesis that nitric oxide generated therein primarily functions as a mediator of cell-cell signaling rather than as a conventional second messenger acting within the cells in which it is produced. The types of communication subserved by nitric oxide appear to be extraordinarily diverse.