Metabotropic glutamate receptors (mGluRs) couple the actions of glutamate to intracellular second messenger systems through G-proteins. The mGluRs play an important role in the regulation of basal ganglia function. Ligand binding studies have revealed that the basal ganglia contain at least two pharmacological types of metabotropic binding sites. Agonists of mGluRs can affect both in vitro electrophysiologic responses of striatal neurons and motor behavior in vivo. Recently, cDNAs encoding five mGluRs have been cloned, each with distinct structural and pharmacological properties. In order to elucidate the function of these receptors in the biology of the extrapyramidal motor system, we have used in situ hybridization to examine the regional and cellular expression patterns of mGluR1-mGluR5 in the adult rat basal ganglia. In the striatum, all of these mGluRs were present in widely varying relative densities and cellular patterns. MGluR5 was particularly prominent, and exhibited a heterogeneous cellular distribution, with labeled and unlabeled populations of neurons. MGluR2 was expressed in a small population of large polygonal striatal neurons. The subthalamic nucleus was the only other basal ganglia structure that expressed mGluR2. Distinct cellular distributions of mGluR expression were also observed within the nucleus accumbens, globus pallidus, ventral pallidum, and substantia nigra pars reticulata. MGluR3 was expressed in glia in all basal ganglia structures, but was observed in neurons only in the striatum, substantia nigra pars reticulata, and very weakly in the subthalamic nucleus. Comparison of the restricted mGluR2 and mGluR3 mRNA distributions with that of metabotropic ligand binding sites supports a possible presynaptic location for these receptors in the basal ganglia. MGluR1 was the only mGluR message prominently expressed in the dopaminergic neurons of the substantia nigra pars compacta, suggesting the involvement of this receptor in the regulation of dopamine release from nigrostriatal terminals.