N-methyl-D-aspartate receptors (NRs) play an important role in basal ganglia function. By using in situ hybridization with ribonucleotide probes, we investigated the regional and cellular distribution of NR subunit mRNA expression in the human basal ganglia: caudate nucleus, putamen, lateral globus pallidus (LGP), and medial globus pallidus (MGP). Analysis of both film autoradiograms and emulsion-dipped slides revealed distinct distribution patterns for each subunit. On film autoradiograms, the signal for NR1, NR2B, and NR2C in the striatum (STR) was higher than in globus pallidus (GP). The NR2D probe gave a stronger signal in GP than in STR. For NR2A we found a signal in all regions. Analysis of emulsion-dipped sections demonstrated that in striatal neurons, the NR2B signal was higher than in GP neurons. In GP neurons, NR2D was more abundant than in striatal neurons. Despite the relatively low signal on film for NR2C in GP, we found a slightly higher signal in GP per neuron than in STR since in the pallidal areas neurons were sparse but intensely labeled. NR1 and NR2A were more evenly distributed over neurons of STR and GP Between the different parts of STR and GP, we observed only minor differences in the expression of NRs. In MGP a subpopulation of neurons exhibiting low NR2D signals could be separated from the majority of neurons showing an intense NR2D signal. Since the physiological properties of NRs are dependent on subunit composition, these data suggest a high degree of regional specialization of NR properties in the human basal ganglia.