alpha-Amino-3-hydroxy-5-methyl-4-isoxazolepropionate (AMPA)-type glutamate receptors are probably the most widespread excitatory neurotransmitter receptors of the central nervous system, and they play a role in most normal and pathological neural activities. However, previous detailed studies of AMPA subunit distribution have been limited mainly to the brain. Thus, a comprehensive study of AMPA receptor subunit distribution was carried out on sections of rat spinal cord and dorsal root ganglia, which were immunolabeled with antibodies made against peptides corresponding to C-terminal portions of the AMPA receptor subunits: GluR1, GluR2/3, and GluR4. In the spinal cord, labeling was most prominent in the superficial dorsal horn, motoneurons, and nuclei containing preganglionic autonomic neurons. Immunostaining also was observed in neurons in other regions including those known to contain Renshaw cells and Ia inhibitory cells. Although overall immunostaining was lighter with antibody to GluR1 than with GluR2/3 and 4, there were neurons that preferentially stained with antibody to GluR1. These "GluR1 intense" neurons were usually fusiform and most concentrated in lamina X. In dorsal root ganglia, immunostaining of ganglion cell bodies was moderate to dense with antibody to GluR2/3 and light to moderate with antibody to GluR4. Possible neuroglia in the spinal cord (mainly GluR2/3 and 4) and satellite cells in dorsal root ganglia (GluR4) were immunostained. Electron microscopic studies of the superficial dorsal horn and lateral motor column showed staining that was restricted mainly to postsynaptic densities and associated dendritic and cell body cytoplasm. In dorsal horn, colocalization of dense-cored vesicles with clear, round synaptic vesicles was observed in unstained presynaptic terminals apposed to stained postsynaptic densities. Subsynaptic dense bodies (Taxi-bodies) were associated with some stained postsynaptic densities in both the superficial dorsal horn and lateral motor column. Based on several morphological features including vesicle structure and presence of Taxi-bodies, it is likely that at least some of the postsynaptic staining seen in this study is apposed to glutamatergic input from primary sensory afferent terminals.