To demonstrate the regional, cellular and subcellular distributions of non-N-methyl-D-aspartate glutamate receptors in rat brain, we generated antipeptide antibodies that recognize the C-terminal domains of individual subunits of the alpha-amino-3-hydroxy-5-methyl-4-isoxazole propionic acid (AMPA)-preferring glutamate receptors (i.e. GluR1, GluR4, and a region highly conserved in GluR2, GluR3 and GluR4c). On immunoblots, antibodies detect distinct proteins with mol. wts ranging from 102,000 to 108,000 in homogenates of rat brain. Immunocytochemistry shows that glutamate receptor subunits are distributed abundantly and differentially within neuronal cell bodies and processes in cerebral cortex, basal ganglia, limbic system, thalamus, cerebellum and brainstem. The precise patterns and cellular localizations of glutamate receptor subunit immunoreactivities are unique for each antibody. In neocortex and hippocampus, pyramidal neurons express GluR1 and GluR2/3/4c immunoreactivities; many non-pyramidal, calcium-binding, protein-enriched neurons in cerebral cortex are selectively immunoreactive for GluR1. In striatum, the cellular localizations of GluR1, GluR2/3/4c and GluR4 immunoreactivities are different; in this region, GluR1 co-localizes with many cholinergic neurons but is only present in a minor proportion of nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide phosphate diaphorase-positive striatal neurons. GluR1 co-localizes with most dopaminergic neurons within the substantia nigra. In several brain regions, astrocytes show GluR4 immunoreactivity. Within the cerebellar cortex, cell bodies and processes of Bergmann glia express intense GluR4 and GluR1 immunoreactivities; perikarya and dendrites of Purkinje cells show GluR2/3/4c immunoreactivity but no evidence of GluR1 or GluR4. Ultrastructurally, GluR subunit immunoreactivities are localized within cell bodies, dendrites and dendritic spines of specific subsets of neurons and, in the case of GluR1 and GluR4, in some populations of astrocytes. This investigation demonstrates that individual AMPA-preferring glutamate receptor subunits are distributed differentially in the brain and suggests that specific neurons and glial cells selectively express glutamate receptors composed of different subunit combinations. Thus, the co-expression of all AMPA receptor subunits within individual cells may not be obligatory for the functions of this glutamate receptor in vivo.