An assessment of glutamate receptor subunit profiles was made in hippocampus and temporal lobe cortex of patients with refractory epilepsy. Molecular biological analyses using reverse transcription reaction (RT) followed by polymerase chain reaction (PCR) revealed changes in the distribution profile of the transcripts of AMPA/KA glutamate receptor subunits in hippocampal and cortical tissue from patients with refractory epilepsy when compared to similar tissue from six human and four non-human primate samples with no history of seizures or seizure medication. A severe mean decrease (38% of control) in mRNA for the GluR1 subunit was found in 400 mm cross-sections of hippocampus from patients with epilepsy. Less severe but significant reductions in that GluR1 subunit expression (54% of control) were exhibited in samples of excised temporal pole cortex from the same subjects. Message for the GluR4 subunit was also significantly decreased in hippocampus (68% of control), but in contrast to GluR1, GluR4 mRNA level was not decreased in temporal cortex. Levels of GluR2 mRNA were not significantly changed in epileptic hippocampal and cortical tissue relative to control samples. Protein levels of the GluR1 and GluR4 subunits quantified by Western blot analysis were also reduced in hippocampal and cortical tissue from epilepsy patients. Two other kainate subunit transcripts, GluR6 and KA1 also showed significant changes compared to non-epileptic tissue (136% and 71% of control, respectively). Results are discussed in terms of possible mechanisms by which protracted seizures could produce selective loss of certain AMPA/KA subunits.