Within the hypothalamus, a large number of neuroactive substances are found, many first detected in this part of the brain. Excitatory amino acids, recognized as important transmitters in other parts of the brain, have received little attention here. To study glutamate immunoreactivity at the ultrastructural level in the hypothalamus, postembedding colloidal gold or silver-intensified gold was used. Antisera raised against glutamate conjugated with glutaraldehyde to keyhole limpet hemocyanin were specific for glutamate, tested with a battery of tests including immunodot blot, ELISA assays. Western blot, and Sepharose epoxy-conjugated amino acids. Antisera did not cross- react with other amino acids and related compounds, with proteins containing glutamate, or with polyglutamate. A population of presynaptic boutons in the suprachiasmatic, arcuate, ventromedial, supraoptic, and parvocellular and magnocellular paraventricular nuclei showed strong immunoreactivity for glutamate. Highly labeled presynaptic axons generally made asymmetrical Gray type 1 synaptic contacts with dendrites or cell bodies and had up to eight times more immunogold particles per unit area than postsynaptic dendrites. Axon terminals exhibiting strong glutamate immunoreactivity had large numbers of round, clear vesicles adjacent to the synaptic specialization together with a few larger, dense-core vesicles. The largest number of gold particles over axons were located in regions containing the small clear vesicles. Axons in general had about three times more gold particles over them than did the postsynaptic dendrites. Staining of single boutons in adjacent serial ultrathin sections with glutamate or GABA antisera showed that non-GABAergic terminals had a higher level of glutamate staining than did axons immunoreactive for GABA. In control experiments, immunostaining with glutamate antiserum could be blocked by solid-phase absorption of the antiserum with glutamate conjugated with glutaraldehyde to proteins. Aspartate was also detected with immunocytochemistry in some presynaptic boutons in the medial hypothalamus. To compare the response of neurons to aspartate and glutamate, calcium-imaging dyes were used in combination with digital video microscopy. Whereas almost all neurons showed a rise in intracellular Ca2+ in response to glutamate, many but not all of the same cells also showed a Ca2+ rise of smaller magnitude in response to aspartate. These ultrastructural immunocytochemical data, taken in conjunction with biochemical and electrophysiological experiments, suggest that glutamate, and to a lesser extent aspartate, may play an important neurotransmitter role in a wide variety of hypothalamic circuits.