We mapped the distribution of CB1 and CB2 receptor messenger RNAs in the developing rat to gain insight into how cannabinoids may affect embryogenesis. In situ hybridization histochemistry studies were done using riboprobes specific for CB1 or CB2 receptor messenger RNAs. We found that CB1 and CB2 receptor messenger RNAs are expressed in the placental cone and in the smooth muscle of the maternal uterus at the earliest gestational periods studied [from eight days of gestation (E8) through E12]. In the embryo, as early as E11, CB1 receptor messenger RNA is expressed in some cells of the neural tube and, at later embryological stages (from E15 to E21), in several distinct structures within the central nervous system. In addition, high levels of CB1 receptor messenger RNA were also found in areas of the peripheral nervous system such as the sympathetic and parasympathetic ganglia, in the retina and in the enteric ganglia of the gastrointestinal tract. In addition to neural structures, high levels of the CB1 receptor messenger RNA were also present in two endocrine organs, the thyroid gland and the adrenal gland. On the other hand, CB2 receptor messenger RNA is expressed exclusively in the liver of the embryo as early as E13. The region-specific expression of CB1 and CB2 receptor messenger RNAs suggests that these receptors have a functional role during embryogenesis.