Nonadrenergic imidazoline-specific binding sites were characterized pharmacologically in crude cerebral membrane preparations, but little is known about their subcellular localization in neurons. As in the brainstem these sites are involved in cardiovascular regulation and peripherally imidazolines modulate neurotransmitter release, we tried to determine a possible (pre)synaptic localization in brainstem. We found a specific enrichment in (entire) synaptosome, purified synaptosomal plasma membrane (37 fmol/mg), and mitochondrial (83 fmol/mg) fractions as compared with other membrane fractions (3-8 fmol/mg). Synaptosomes appeared to be free of postsynaptic structures, and purified synaptosomal plasma membranes were devoid of mitochondrial material, as determined by electron microscopy and by comparison with the distribution of marker enzymes such as monoamine oxidase. These results show for the first time that these extramitochondrial imidazoline-specific sites are neuronal and are located on presynaptic terminals. We found high affinities for unlabeled p-iodoclonidine (subnanomolar), clonidine (0.2 nM), and efaroxan (11 nM), but idazoxan did not compete significantly for the p-[125I]iodoclonidine binding in these membranes. Therefore, these sites can be classified as I1 imidazoline receptors. In summary, we describe for the first time that high-affinity I1 receptors of the bovine brainstem are located on (pre)synaptic membranes.