This paper is a light microscopical study describing the detailed morphology and quantitative distribution of local circuit neurones in areas 25, 32, and 24b of the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) in the rat. Cortical interneurones were identified immunocytochemically by their expression of calretinin (CR), parvalbumin (PV), and calbindin D-28k (CB) immunoreactivity. Neurones immunoreactive for gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) were also investigated, as were interneurones containing reduced nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide phosphate (NADPH) diaphorase activity. Several distinct classes of CR+, PV+, and CB+ neurones were identified; the most frequent were: bipolar/bitufted CR+ cells in upper layer 3; multipolar PV+ neurones in layers 3 and 5; and bitufted/multipolar CB+ neurones in lower layer 3. CB+ neurones resembling Martinotti and neurogliaform cells were also present in layers 5/6. The morphologies and depth distributions of each cell type were consistent across the three areas of mPFC studied. Seven classes of diaphorase-reactive mPFC neurone are described; these cells were composed about 0.8% of the total neurone population and had a peak distribution located in mid- to lower layer 5 in each area. In areas 32 and 25, three defined bands of diffuse NADPH diaphorase staining were located in layer 2 and in upper and deep layer 5. Diaphorase reactivity was very infrequently colocalised with either CR, PV, or CB immunoreactivities. The numerical densities of neurones (N(V), number of cells per mm3) in each layer were calculated stereologically. The mean total neuronal N(V) estimate for areas 25, 32, and 24b was 51,603 +/- 3,324 (mean +/- S.D.; n = 8). Significant interareal differences were detected. From cortical thickness data and neuronal N(V) estimates, the absolute number of neurones under 1 mm2 of cortical surface (N(C)) have been derived. The mean N(C) value for areas 25, 32, and 24b was 57,328 +/- 7,505 neurones. In immunolabelled Nissl-stained sections, CR+ neurones constituted an overall 4.0%, PV+ cells 5.6%, and CB+ 3.4% of the total neurone populations in mPFC. GABA+ cells represented a mean of 16.2% (14.8-17.2%) of neurones in areas 25, 32 and 24b. The absolute numbers of CR+, PV+, CB+, and GABA+ neurones within individual layers in a column of cortex under 1 mm2 of cortical surface (N(L)) have also been derived, with significant interareal differences in N(L) values being detected. The data provide the structural basis for a qualitative and quantitative definition of local cortical circuits in the rat mPFC.