To determine which alpha 2-adrenergic receptor subtypes are present in primary afferent and sympathetic postganglionic neurons we have performed in situ hybridization and immunohistochemistry experiments on rat dorsal root and superior cervical ganglia. Reverse transcriptase polymerase chain reaction was used as a preliminary screen for the presence of mRNA encoding alpha 2-adrenergic subtypes in dorsal root and superior cervical ganglia; polymerase chain reaction primers amplified distinct regions of the rat alpha 2A-(RG20), alpha 2B-(RNG) and alpha 2C-(RG10) adrenergic receptor subtypes in mRNA extracted from lumbar dorsal root and superior cervical ganglia. To localize receptors to cell types in the ganglia, in situ hybridization was performed on cryosections of dorsal root and superior cervical ganglia with oligonucleotide probes designed to distinguish between mRNA encoding for alpha 2-adrenergic receptor subtypes. Immunohistochemistry was performed with a polyclonal antibody against the alpha 2A-adrenergic receptor subtype. Our results with reverse transcriptase polymerase chain reaction indicate that all three alpha 2-adrenergic receptor subtypes are expressed in dorsal root and superior cervical ganglia. Data from the in situ hybridization experiments indicated that the mRNA detected with the reverse transcriptase polymerase chain reaction was present in neuronal cell bodies, except for the mRNA encoding the alpha 2A-adrenergic receptor which was not detectable in dorsal root ganglia. The distribution of mRNA encoding alpha 2B- and alpha 2C-adrenergic receptor subtypes among dorsal root ganglion neurons and alpha 2A-, alpha 2B- and alpha 2C-adrenergic receptor subtypes among superior cervical ganglion neurons suggests that multiple adrenergic receptor subtypes are present in a single neuron. Neuronal cell bodies in both the dorsal root and superior cervical ganglion consistently demonstrated alpha 2A-adrenergic receptor-like immunoreactivity. The apparent co-expression of multiple alpha 2-adrenergic receptor subtypes in dorsal root and superior cervical ganglion neurons enables a single transmitter to produce a number of effects in the same neuron; which receptors are functionally active may vary with the presence of nerve injury, inflammation or other physiological and pathophysiological conditions.