The survival of ventral mesencephalic substantia nigra (SN) dopamine neurons, which degenerate in Parkinson's disease, is enhanced by glial cells in vitro. The recent isolation of glial cell line-derived growth factor (GDNF), a molecule with apparently selective effects on dopamine (DA) neurons in vitro, raises the question of whether this factor is found in normal brain cells. In this study, the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) was employed to determine the regional distribution and cellular localization of GDNF in the rat central nervous system. GDNF was expressed by SN and basal forebrain Type 1 (T1) astrocytes, with trace transcript levels present in cortical T1 astrocytes. Neuronal cultures of embryonic SN also expressed GDNF. Regionally, postnatal striatum contained the highest GDNF mRNA levels in vivo under the PCR conditions employed. Our data suggest a role for GDNF in both local and target-derived support of DA neurons, as well as potential involvement in the support of other neuronal populations in vivo.