Imidazoline binding sites from the human brainstem were solubilized with 3-[(3-cholamido-propyl)-dimethylammonio]-1-propane-sulfonate (CHAPS). [3H]idazoxan and [3H]clonidine were used as ligands to characterize the solubilized binding sites. In both the soluble and membrane fractions, [3H]idazoxan binding was saturable, stereoselective, sensitive to imidazolines and insensitive to (-)norepinephrine and to amiloride. The affinities of [3H]idazoxan for the soluble and membrane sites were similar (KD = 25 +/- 11 nM and 20 +/- 3 nM). In both soluble and membrane fractions, the alpha 2-adrenoceptor binding being masked with (-)norepinephrine, [3H]clonidine bound to a low affinity site which was insensitive to (-)norepinephrine and which exhibited the same selectivity for various drugs as the [3H]idazoxan binding site. alpha 2-adrenoceptor binding was present in the membrane and the soluble fractions although it was difficult to detect in the soluble fraction because of inhibition of [3H]rauwolscine binding by the CHAPS detergent.