Dopaminergic (DA) cells of the substantia nigra pars compacta (SNC) and the ventral tegmental area (VTA) display differences in their topography, biochemistry and susceptibility to pathological processes. Neuronal dopamine concentration is regulated in large part by tyrosine hydroxylase (TH), the rate-limiting enzyme of dopamine synthesis, and by the dopamine reuptake system. In the present study, TH protein, TH mRNA and dopamine membrane transporter (DAT) mRNA were quantified at cellular level in 4 arbitrary subregions of the rat ventral mesencephalon (lateral, middle, medial SNC and VTA), using in situ hybridization and immunoautoradiography. The distribution of labelling for TH protein and TH mRNA was almost superimposable and close to that of DAT mRNA in mesencephalic neurons. Lower values of cellular expression in TH protein, TH mRNA and DAT mRNA were observed in the lateral part of the SNC compared to the other subregions. TH and DAT expression were correlated in SNC but not in VTA. Indeed DA cells in this region expressed low levels of DAT mRNA in comparison to the middle and medial SNC. These results suggest a heterogeneity of DA metabolism among populations of mesencephalic cells. The relative lower expression of the DAT gene in VTA neurons suggests a less efficient dopamine reuptake capacity, which may partly account for the relative sparing of the mesolimbic system reported in Parkinson's disease and MPTP-treated animals.