The P2X7 receptor is a bifunctional molecule. The binding of ATP induces within milliseconds the opening of a channel selective for small cations, and within seconds a larger pore opens which allows permeation by molecules as large as propidium dyes (629 Da). In situ hybridization using a digoxigenin-labelled riboprobe, and immunohistochemistry using an antibody raised against a C-terminal peptide sequence, were used to determine the distribution of the P2X7 receptor mRNA and protein in rat and mouse tissues and cell lines. The brain of newborn rats showed a 6 kb RNA by Northern blotting, but this was not detectable in adult brain. By in situ hybridization and immunohistochemistry, there was heavy labelling of ependymal cells in both newborn and adult brain, but the brain parenchyma showed no labelling. However, P2X7 receptor-immunoreactive cells appeared in the penumbral region around an area of necrosis evoked by prior occlusion of the middle cerebral artery, suggesting expression of the receptor by activated microglia. NTW8 cells, a mouse microglial cell line, strongly expressed the P2X7 receptor mRNA and protein. The P2X7 receptor mRNA and protein were also observed in the majority of bone marrow cells, including those separately identified by their expression of other antigens as granulocytes, monocyte/macrophages and B lymphocytes. The expression of P2X7 receptor by brain macrophages rather than neurons would be consistent with a role in brain repair following inflammation, infarction or immune insult.