To elucidate molecular mechanisms underlying activity-dependent synaptic remodeling in the developing mammalian visual system, we screened for genes whose expression in the lateral geniculate nucleus (LGN) is regulated by spontaneously generated action potentials present prior to vision. Activity blockade did not alter expression in the LGN of 32 known genes. Differential mRNA display, however, revealed a decrease in mRNAs encoding class I major histocompatibility complex antigens (class I MHC). Postnatally, visually driven activity can regulate class I MHC in the LGN during the final remodeling of retinal ganglion cell axon terminals. Moreover, in the mature hippocampus, class I MHC mRNA levels are increased by kainic acid-induced seizures. Normal expression of class I MHC mRNA is correlated with times and regions of synaptic plasticity, and immunohistochemistry confirms that class I MHC is present in specific subsets of CNS neurons. Finally, beta2-microglobulin, a cosubunit of class I MHC, and CD3zeta, a component of a receptor complex for class I MHC, are also expressed by CNS neurons. These observations indicate that class I MHC molecules, classically thought to mediate cell-cell interactions exclusively in immune function, may play a novel role in neuronal signaling and activity-dependent changes in synaptic connectivity.