In an attempt to gain knowledge of the possible functions of kainate receptors, we have used in situ hybridization to examine the regional and cellular expression patterns of glutamate receptor subunits GluR5-7, KA1 and KA2 in the adult mouse basal ganglia, known to play a pivotal role in the translation of motivation into actions. Kainate receptor subunits were found to be differentially expressed in the circuitry forming the basal ganglia. They differ from each other in expression levels and their spatial localization. GluR6 appeared as the key subunit for the descending gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA)ergic-glutamatergic pathways, with highest message levels in the caudate putamen, globus pallidus and subthalamic nucleus as well as in the nucleus accumbens and olfactory tubercle. GluR7 exhibited highest expression in the ascending nigrostriatal and mesolimbic dopaminergic neurons. GluR5 had a restricted distribution pattern, with high expression in the ventral pallidum, the islands of Calleja and pars compacta of the substantia nigra. KA2 was usually coexpressed with GluR6, although with a generally lower level of expression. Finally, KA1 mRNA was barely detectable in these neuronal circuits. These data suggest that kainate receptors in general may be involved in the functions associated with the basal ganglia, with a key role in the control of the central dopaminergic transmission. Thus, they might be implicated in the neurodegenerative and psychic disorders associated with an impairment of the basal ganglia.