Strychnine is one of the most potent antagonists of glycine-mediated inhibitory conductances in the mammalian spinal cord. In order to examine the distribution of glycine receptors (GlyRs) on neuronal cells, 2 novel fluorescent strychnine derivatives were synthesized and characterized chemically, spectroscopically, and biologically. Both compounds retain their biological activity after derivatization and are potent inhibitors of 3H-strychnine binding to bovine spinal cord membranes and membranes from rat spinal cord cultures. Using these fluorescent strychnine analogs, the cellular distribution and lateral mobility of GlyRs on cultured rat spinal cord neurons were studied by digital fluorescence imaging and photobleach recovery microscopy. On these neurons, even in the absence of observable synaptic contact and early in development GlyRs are predominantly localized to cell bodies with sparse labeling of neuritic processes. Although GlyRs are confined to the neuronal cell body, approximately 50% of the receptors are very mobile, with lateral diffusion coefficients of 1.15 +/- 0.05 x 10(-9) cm2/sec, a value which is characteristic of unrestricted protein lateral diffusion. However, the remaining fraction of these receptors are immobile on the neuronal cell body. More than 70% of the GlyRs distributed on neuronal processes are immobile, while 30% are laterally mobile, with diffusion rates of 5.50 +/- 0.1 x 10(-10) cm2/sec. The results indicate that even early in development GlyRs are expressed and segregated to the cell body, where they are confined within a domain that restricts their redistribution.