NF-kappa B is a potent transcriptional activator that resides in latent form in the cytoplasm complexed to its inhibitor I kappa B. Phosphorylation of I kappa B by protein kinase C (PKC) releases NF-kappa B, enabling its translocation to the nucleus. Since PKC can activate NF-kappa B and PKC is activated by long-term potentiation (LTP), we investigated NF-kappa B expression after hippocampal LTP induced in vivo. We first described the expression of the NF-kappa B subunits, p50 and p65, and I kappa B alpha mRNAs, in each cell field of the hippocampus. In other brain locations I kappa B alpha mRNA exhibited a more selective expression than p50 and p65. We then demonstrated specific NF-kappa B-like DNA-binding activity in hippocampal whole-cell extracts and in synaptosomes using electrophoretic mobility shift assays by the following criteria: (1) latent binding was revealed after deoxycholate treatment; (2) binding was competed off by unlabeled kappa B oligonucleotides; and (3) antibodies to either p50 or p65 blocked binding. Since p50 gene expression is auto-regulated by NF-kappa B, we used its expression as a reporter for NF-kappa B activity using quantitative in situ hybridization. Both p50 and p65 increased their expression in response to either LTP-inducing or low-frequency control stimulation, although the increase in p65 mRNA levels was greater after LTP than control stimulation. In contrast to p50 and p65, I kappa B alpha hybridization levels were not increased, but were inversely correlated with the magnitude of LTP. Since NF-kappa B subunit gene expression in the hippocampus is increased by augmented synaptic activity, NF-kappa B activation may contribute to alterations in target gene expression that accompany activity-dependent synaptic plasticity, but only in a combinatorial fashion with other transcription factors.