The existence of opioid receptors within glial cell membranes has been proposed by several laboratories based on biochemical and radioligand binding data. The recent cloning of the mu, delta and kappa receptors has enabled us to directly examine the issue of opioid receptor expression in rat brain astroglia by using solution hybridization/ribonuclease protection assays to analyze the total RNA obtained from primary cultures of cortical, striatal, cerebellar, hippocampal and hypothalamic astrocytes. The results indicate that all five glial cultures expressed mu, delta and kappa receptor mRNA. The rank order of receptor mRNA abundance, expressed collectively across all five cultures, was determined to be delta > or = kappa >> mu. An analysis of the glial distribution profile for each receptor type revealed that mu receptor mRNA levels were the most abundantly expressed in cortical cultures, while the greatest levels of delta receptor mRNA were found in the cortical and hypothalamic cultures, and significant kappa receptor mRNA levels were produced by the cortical, hypothalamic and cerebellar cultures. Furthermore, the five glial cultures each expressed different levels of total opioid receptor (mu + delta + kappa) mRNA. The rank order of total opioid receptor mRNA expression across different astroglial cultures was found to be cortex > hypothalamus > cerebellum = hippocampus > striatum. An analysis of the relative expression profiles for mu, delta and kappa receptor mRNA within each culture revealed that all cultures manifested relatively high levels of delta and kappa receptor mRNA, but relatively low levels of mu receptor mRNA. Generally, cortical, hippocampal and hypothalamic cultures were characterized by comparable levels of delta and kappa receptor mRNA, and little, if any, mu receptor mRNA. However, striatal cultures were characterized by a high level of delta receptor mRNA which was approximately twice and four times that of the kappa and mu receptor mRNA, respectively. In contrast, cerebellar cultures expressed predominantly kappa receptor mRNA at a level which was almost twice that of the delta receptor mRNA, and expressed very little mu receptor mRNA. These data show that primary astroglial cultures not only express mu, delta and kappa receptor mRNAs, but they do so in a manner dependent upon receptor type and brain region. This suggests a regional heterogeneity of astrocytes with respect to opioid receptor expression, a characteristic previously described only for neurons. Furthermore, it suggests the existence of an additional anatomical component in CNS opioid systems.