Evidence is accumulating that glutamate-mediated excitotoxicity plays an important role in neuronal degeneration in Parkinson's disease (PD). In addition, alterations in excitatory amine acid neurotransmission in the basal ganglia contribute to the clinical manifestations of motor dysfunction. However, detailed knowledge of the anatomical distribution and subtype specificity of glutamate receptors in the dopamine neurons of human substantia nigra (SN) has been lacking. In order to test the hypothesis that selective expression of particular N-methyl-D-aspartate receptor (NR) subunit mRNA contributes to the differential vulnerability of specific neuronal populations to excitotoxic injury in PD, we have used a quantitative dual label, in situ hybridization technique with ribonucleotide probes to examine the cellular distribution of NR subunit mRNA in postmortem human mesencephalic dopaminergic neurons from subjects with no known neurological disorder. Analysis of both film autoradiograms and emulsion-dipped sections demonstrated significant labeling of nigral neurons for each NR subunit. Neuronal labeling was most intense for the NR1 and NR2D subunits, with low level labeling for the remaining subunits. In addition, we examined four subregions of the ventral mesencephalon for differential expression of NR subunit mRNA. For all NR subunits, the pars lateralis (PL) exhibited the most intense signal, while neurons of the ventral tier substantia nigra pars compacta (SNpc) failed to demonstrate a preponderance of a particular subunit. These results demonstrate that NRs are expressed to a significant degree in dopaminergic neurons of the SN and that their distribution does not correlate with the characteristic pattern of neuronal degeneration in PD.