The majority of neuronal mRNAs are confined to cell bodies, but a few mRNAs are present at high levels in dendrites. Here we report an initial analysis of the relationship between afferent innervation and the distribution of mRNA within dendritic fields. In situ hybridization techniques were used to compare the subcellular distribution of dendritic mRNAs in principal neurons of the hippocampal formation in vivo. The mRNA encoding the alpha subunit of calcium/calmodulin dependent protein kinase II (CAMII kinase) was present at high levels throughout the layers that contain the dendrites of hippocampal pyramidal cells and dentate granule cells. In contrast, the mRNA encoding the high molecular weight microtubule-associated protein MAP2 had a more limited distribution. In the dentate gyrus, labeling for MAP2 was present in a discrete band in the lamina containing proximal dendrites and decreased to low levels in laminae containing distal dendrites. This laminar pattern resembles the distinct terminations of the commissural/associational projection (high MAP2 labeling) and the entorhinal projection (lower MAP2 labeling) upon dendrites of granule cells. To determine if the differential distribution of dendritic mRNAs was regulated by either the presence or activity of afferents, we evaluated mRNA distribution in the dentate molecular layer following (1) removal of the entorhinal input by lesions of the entorhinal cortex or (2) prolonged delivery of potentiating stimulation to entorhinal afferents. Denervation led to modest decreases in the levels of mRNAs for both CAMII and MAP2 but did not lead to detectable alterations in mRNA distribution. Also, prolonged stimulation did not lead to detectable alterations in MAP2 or CAMII mRNA distribution although such stimulation clearly elevated the expression of mRNA for glial fibrillary acidic protein (GFAP).