NF-kappa B and related factors are important transducers of external signals to the cell nucleus. They are abundant in the brain, where they may be significant for the regulation of gene transcription in plasticity-related processes for instance, via activation of protein kinase C. The subunit composition and levels of these factors in the mouse and rat brain and other tissues, using an assay based on gel retardation of the oligonucleotides corresponding to the kappa B DNA-element, are reported here. Three major kappa B-binding factors were observed. Factors I and II were activated by the dissociating agent deoxycholate. DNA protein cross-linking and antibody neutralization experiments suggest that factor I is a heterodimer of c-Rel and p65; factor II is a heterodimer of p50 and p65 (authentic NF-kappa B), and of p50 and c-Rel; factor III is the p50 homodimer (KBF1). All three factors were generally expressed in the 17-day-old rat embryo and 5-day-old pup, whereas in the adult rat, expression was more limited and showed certain tissue specificity. Factor II was the most generally expressed and the only factor observed in adult brain. Factor I was only detected in the adult testis whereas factor III was observed in the adult spleen and, in small amounts, in the liver and lung. Two minor kappa B-specific factors (A and B), distinctive to the brain and spleen, respectively, showed very slow gel mobility. Their estimated molecular weights were about 125 kDa and 95 kDa, respectively. Expression of factor A was stable in the rat brain during development. Factor A may be identical to a previously described brain-specific factor, BETA (Korner et al., Neuron, 3 (1989) 563-572). Thus, the expression pattern of kappa B-binding activities is apparently developmentally regulated and tissue-specific particularly in the adult. In the adult mouse and rat brain, only factors II (probably NF-kappa B and p50/c-Rel heterodimer) and A (probably BETA) could be observed.