Conventional immunohistochemistry provides little evidence for the synaptic localization of ionotropic neurotransmitter receptors, suggesting that their epitopes are not readily accessible in situ. Here, we have adapted antigen retrieval procedures based on microwave irradiation to enhance the immunohistochemical staining of gamma-aminobutyric acid type A (GABA[A]) and N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptor subunits in rat brain tissue. Microwave irradiation of fixed tissue produced a marked reduction of nonspecific staining, allowing an improved detection of GABA(A) receptor subunits. However, staining of NMDA receptor subunits remained suboptimal. In contrast, microwave irradiation of cryostat sections prepared from fresh tissue resulted in a major enhancement of both NMDA and GABAA receptor subunit staining. The diffuse, partially intracellular signals were largely replaced by numerous, intensely immunoreactive puncta outlining neuronal somata and dendrites, highly suggestive ofsynaptic receptors. In hippocampus CA1-CA3 fields, the NR2Aand NR2B subunit positive puncta exhibited an extensive colocalization in the stratum oriens and radiatum, whereas pyramidal cell bodies, which receive no excitatory synapses, were unstained. In addition, the NR2A subunit, but not the NR2B subunit, was selectively detected on pyramidal cell dendrites in the stratum lucidum of CA3, suggesting a selective targeting to sites of mossy fiber input. For the GABAA receptor subunits, the most striking change induced by this protocol was the selective staining of the axon initial segment of cortical and hippocampal pyramidal cells. The alpha2 subunit immunoreactivity was particularly prominent in these synapses. In control experiments, the staining of cytoskeletal proteins (neurofilaments, glial fibrillary acid protein) was not influenced by prior microwave irradiation. The enhancement of cell-surface-associated staining is therefore strongly suggestive of an 'unmasking' of subunit epitopes by the microwave treatment. These results reveal a remarkable specificity in the synaptic targeting of NMDA and GABAA receptor subunits in hippocampal and neocortical neurons, suggesting that individual neurons can express multiple receptor subtypes in functionally distinct synapses.