The cellular and subcellular localization of the GluRA, GluRB/C and GluRD subunits of the alpha-amino-3-hydroxy-5-methyl-4-isoxazolepropionate (AMPA) type glutamate receptor was determined in the rat hippocampus using polyclonal antipeptide antibodies in immunoperoxidase and immunogold procedures. For the localization of the GluRD subunit a new polyclonal antiserum was developed using the C-terminal sequence of the protein (residues 869-881), conjugated to carrier protein and absorbed to colloidal gold for immunization. The purified antibodies immunoprecipitated about 25% of 3[H]AMPA binding activity from the hippocampus, cerebellum or whole brain, but very little from neocortex. These antibodies did not precipitate a significant amount of 3[H]kainate binding activity. The antibodies also recognize the GluRD subunit, but not the other AMPA receptor subunits, when expressed in transfected COS-7 cells and only when permeabilized with detergent, indicating an intracellular epitope. All subunits were enriched in the neuropil of the dendritic layers of the hippocampus and in the molecular layer of the dentate gyrus. The cellular distribution of the GluRD subunit was studied more extensively. The strata radiatum, oriens and the dentate molecular layer were more strongly immunoreactive than the stratum lacunosum moleculare, the stratum lucidum and the hilus. However, in the stratum lucidum of the CA3 area and in the hilus the weakly reacting dendrites were surrounded by immunopositive rosettes, shown in subsequent electron microscopic studies to correspond to complex dendritic spines. In the stratum radiatum, the weakly reacting apical dendrites contrasted with the surrounding intensely stained neuropil. The cell bodies of pyramidal and granule cells were moderately reactive. Some non-principal cells and their dendrites in the pyramidal cell layer and in the alveus also reacted very strongly for the GluRD subunit. At the subcellular level, silver intensified immunogold particles for the GluRA, GluRB/C and GluRD subunits were present at type 1 synaptic membrane specializations on dendritic spines of pyramidal cells throughout all layers of the CA1 and CA3 areas. The most densely labelled synapses tended to be on the largest spines and many smaller spines remained unlabelled. Immunoparticle density at type 1 synapses on dendritic shafts of some non-principal cells was consistently higher than at labelled synapses of dendritic spines of pyramidal cells. Synapses established between dendritic spines and mossy fibre terminals, were immunoreactive for all studied subunits in stratum lucidum of the CA3 area. The postembedding immunogold method revealed that the AMPA type receptors are concentrated within the main body of the anatomically defined type 1 (asymmetrical) synaptic junction. Often only a part of the membrane specialization showed clustered immunoparticles. There was a sharp decrease in immunoreactive receptor density at the edge of the synaptic specialization. Immunolabelling was consistently demonstrated at extrasynaptic sites on dendrites, dendritic spines and somata. The results demonstrate that the GluRA, B/C and D subunits of the AMPA type glutamate receptor are present in many of the glutamatergic synapses formed by the entorhinal, CA3 pyramidal and mossy fibre terminals. Some interneurons have a higher density of AMPA type receptors in their asymmetrical afferent synapses than pyramidal cells. This may contribute to a lower activation threshold of interneurons as compared to principal cells by the same afferents in the hippocampal formation.