WIN 35428 and GBR 12935, two uptake blocker ligands of the membrane transporter for dopamine (DA), were evaluated as quantitative markers of DA innervation density in CNS tissue. From alternate rat brain slices respectively processed for either light microscope or film autoradiography, counts of DA axon terminals (varicosities) labeled by uptake/storage of [3H]DA were matched with densitometric measurements of the specific binding of [3H]WIN 35428 and [3H]GBR 12935 in the same anatomical areas. The relation between the two parameters was examined in 1) the normal cingulate cortex; 2) the neostriatum severely DA-denervated by unilateral intramesencephalic injections of 6-hydroxydopamine; and 3) the neostriatum, partly DA-reinnervated by an intrastriatal graft of fetal mesencephalic neurons after prior 6-hydroxydopamine lesion. For technical reasons, the hyperdense DA innervation of normal striatum was not amenable to such correlative testing. Data were subjected to multilevel analysis. Specific [3H]WIN binding at 37 degrees C was tightly and linearly correlated with the number of DA varicosities over the full range of DA innervation densities tested. The regression lines for intact cortex and for DA-denervated as well as DA-reinnervated neostriatum had the same slope and crossed the ordinate near zero. In contrast, [3H]GBR 12935 binding at 37 degrees C showed no correlation with the number of DA varicosities. A linear correlation could be obtained after incubation with [3H]GBR 12935 at 4 degrees C in the presence of ZnSO4, but the intercept of this regression line remained significantly above zero at origin, indicating extraneous binding to non-DA transporter sites. Providing that the hyperdense DA innervation of the normal neostriatum does not generate a particular problem in vivo as it does in vitro. WIN 35428, but not GBR 12935, might satisfy the selectivity and sensitivity requirements of a quantitative marker of DA innervation density for eventual use in positron emission tomographic studies.