N-methyl-D-aspartate receptor subunit messenger RNAs are widely expressed in the retina and several types of second and third order neurons are responsive to N-methyl-D-aspartate. Functional N-methyl-D-aspartate receptors are assembled from the NR1 subunit with at least one of the four NR2 subunit variants (NR2A-2D). We have analysed immunohistochemically the cellular distribution of N-methyl-D-aspartate receptors containing the NR2D subunit in the rat and rabbit retina. Using a subunit-specific NR2D antiserum, exclusively bipolar cells with somata localized close to the outer plexiform layer were labelled in both species. The axons were immunoreactive and arborized in the innermost inner plexiform layer. The morphology and localization of these cells, which were much more numerous in rat than in rabbit, suggested that they are rod bipolar cells. This was confirmed in both species by co-localization of the NR2D subunit immunoreactivity with protein kinase C-alpha, a selective marker for rod bipolar cells. At the subcellular level, a distinct polarization in the distribution of NR2D immunoreactivity was demonstrated by confocal laser scanning microscopy: staining was moderate in dendrites arborizing within the outer plexiform layer, intense at that pole of the soma facing the outer plexiform layer, and low in the portion of the soma embedded in the inner nuclear layer. Proximal axonal segments and axonal end-feet in the inner plexiform layer displayed the strongest NR2D subunit immunoreactivity. The axonal staining suggests that neurotransmission of the rod bipolar cells is modulated within the inner plexiform layer by N-methyl-D-aspartate receptors containing the NR2D subunit.