In situ hybridization was used to compare the microscopic distribution in the rat brain of cells containing mRNA for choline acetyltransferase (ChAT) (i.e. cholinergic cells) with that of cells containing mRNA for the five subtypes of muscarinic receptors, in an attempt to establish the potential role as autoreceptors (i.e. muscarinic cholinoceptors present in cholinergic cells) of the different muscarinic receptor subtypes. [32P]alpha-dATP-labelled synthetic oligonucleotides were used as hybridization probes in serial sections. Transcripts for all five subtypes of muscarinic receptors were detected in cells co-distributing with ChAT mRNA-containing cells in one or more regions of the brain. Cells containing m2, m3, m4 or m5 mRNAs were observed in the regions of the basal forebrain where cholinergic cells are located (medial septum/diagonal band nuclei, ventral pallidum, basal nucleus of Meynert). m2, m3 and m5 mRNAs were abundant in the parabigeminal nucleus. m2, m3 and m4 transcripts were detected in the pedunculopontine and laterodorsal tegmental nuclei. m1, m2 and m3 mRNAs were present in several cranial nerve nuclei. The present results suggest that muscarinic autoreceptors belonging to the five subtypes cloned to date may exist.