It is acknowledged that the TSH receptor (TSHr) on thyroid follicular cells is the autoantigen involved in the hyperthyroidism of Graves' disease. However, whether this receptor is expressed in extrathyroidal tissues, and whether it participates directly in the pathogenesis of Graves' ophthalmopathy (GO) are unclear. We sought to detect the expression of TSHr messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA) and protein in orbital adipose/connective tissue specimens and in human orbital preadipocyte fibroblast cultures using liquid hybridization analysis and immunohistochemical methods. We demonstrated intact and variant TSHr mRNA transcripts and TSHr-like immunoreactivity in orbital adipose/connective tissue specimens from patients with GO. In addition, TSHr-like immunoreactivity was detected in early passage GO preadipocyte fibroblast cultures that were shown to include some adipose cells. In contrast, neither TSHr mRNA nor protein was detected in normal orbital adipose/connective tissue specimens or in late passage GO orbital fibroblast cultures containing no lipid-laden adipose cells. In conclusion, we showed that TSHr is expressed in the adipose/connective tissue of the diseased orbit in GO. In addition, TSHr is demonstrable in early passage GO preadipocyte orbital fibroblast cultures that contain a subpopulation of adipocytes. Subsequent passaging of these cells results in the loss of both TSHr expression and adipocyte-specific staining. These results suggest that both the expression of this receptor and the accumulation of adipose tissue in the orbit in GO may be induced in vivo by a humoral factor(s) not present in the cell culture environment.