The expression patterns of 13 GABAA receptor subunit encoding genes (alpha 1-alpha 6, beta 1-beta 3, gamma 1-gamma 3, delta) were determined in adult rat brain by in situ hybridization. Each mRNA displayed a unique distribution, ranging from ubiquitous (alpha 1 mRNA) to narrowly confined (alpha 6 mRNA was present only in cerebellar granule cells). Some neuronal populations coexpressed large numbers of subunit mRNAs, whereas in others only a few GABAA receptor-specific mRNAs were found. Neocortex, hippocampus, and caudate-putamen displayed complex expression patterns, and these areas probably contain a large diversity of GABAA receptors. In many areas, a consistent coexpression was observed for alpha 1 and beta 2 mRNAs, which often colocalized with gamma 2 mRNA. The alpha 1 beta 2 combination was abundant in olfactory bulb, globus pallidus, inferior colliculus, substantia nigra pars reticulata, globus pallidus, zona incerta, subthalamic nucleus, medial septum, and cerebellum. Colocalization was also apparent for the alpha 2 and beta 3 mRNAs, and these predominated in areas such as amygdala and hypothalamus. The alpha 3 mRNA occurred in layers V and VI of neocortex and in the reticular thalamic nucleus. In much of the forebrain, with the exception of hippocampal pyramidal cells, the alpha 4 and delta transcripts appeared to codistribute. In thalamic nuclei, the only abundant GABAA receptor mRNAs were those of alpha 1, alpha 4, beta 2, and delta. In the medial geniculate thalamic nucleus, alpha 1, alpha 4, beta 2, delta, and gamma 3 mRNAs were the principal GABAA receptor transcripts. The alpha 5 and beta 1 mRNAs generally colocalized and may encode predominantly hippocampal forms of the GABAA receptor. These anatomical observations support the hypothesis that alpha 1 beta 2 gamma 2 receptors are responsible for benzodiazepine I (BZ I) binding, whereas receptors containing alpha 2, alpha 3, and alpha 5 contribute to subtypes of the BZ II site. Based on significant mismatches between alpha 4/delta and gamma mRNAs, we suggest that in vivo, the alpha 4 subunit contributes to GABAA receptors that lack BZ modulation.