Quantitative receptor autoradiography was used to determine the distribution of excitatory amino acid binding sites in the basal ganglia of rat brain. alpha-Amino-3-hydroxy-5-methylisoxazole-4-propionic acid, N-methyl-D-aspartate, kainate, quisqualate-sensitive metabotropic and non-N-methyl-D-aspartate, non-kainate, non-quisqualate glutamate binding sites had their highest density in striatum, nucleus accumbens, and olfactory tubercle. Kainate binding was higher in the lateral striatum but there was no medial-lateral striatal gradient for other binding sites. N-Methyl-D-aspartate and alpha-amino-3-hydroxy-5-methylisoxazole-4-propionic acid binding sites were most dense in the nucleus accumbens and olfactory tubercle. There was no dorsal-ventral gradient within the striatal complex for the other binding sites. Other regions of the basal ganglia had lower densities of ligand binding. To compare binding site density within non-striatal regions, binding for each ligand was normalized to the striatal binding density. When compared to the striatal complex, alpha-amino-3-hydroxy-5-methylisoxazole-4-propionic acid and metabotropic binding sites had higher relative density in the globus pallidus, ventral pallidum, and subthalamic nucleus than other binding sites. Metabotropic binding also had a high relative density in the substantia nigra. Non-N-methyl-D-aspartate, non-kainate, non-quisqualate glutamate binding sites had a high relative density in globus pallidus, ventral pallidum, and substantia nigra. N-Methyl-D-aspartate binding sites had a low relative density in pallidum, subthalamic nucleus, substantia nigra and ventral tegmental area. Our data indicate heterogeneous distribution of excitatory amino acid binding sites within rat basal ganglia and suggest that the character of excitatory amino acid-mediated neurotransmission within the basal ganglia is also heterogeneous.