The mu (mu) opioid receptors, which mediate the effects of morphine, are widely distributed in brain. We have examined the distribution of mRNA encoding a mu opioid receptor in rat brain with in situ hybridization histochemistry at the single-cell level to obtain information about the cell types synthesizing this receptor. Only neurons, not glia, were labeled in discrete brain regions. High levels of labeling were detected in the thalamus, striosomes of the caudate-putamen, globus pallidus, and brain regions involved in nociception, arousal, respiratory control, and, possibly, addiction. The general distribution of the receptor mRNA paralleled that of mu opioid binding sites with some notable exceptions. These include the cerebral cortex, which contains binding sites, but very few labeled neurons. No labeling was observed in the cerebellum, a region devoid of mu binding sites. Three main findings emerged from these experiments: 1) the mRNA was present in regions mediating both the therapeutic (analgesia) and the unwanted (respiratory depression, addiction) effects of morphine, 2) the mRNA was very densely expressed by neurons known to receive dense enkephalin-containing inputs, and 3) the dissociation between the presence of binding sites and absence of mRNA in some brain regions supports a presynaptic localization of mu opioid receptors in these areas. Alternatively, other subtypes of mu opioid receptors may be encoded by a different mRNA. These results provide new insights into the receptor types and neuronal circuits involved in the effects of endogenous opioids and morphine.