Glutamate and related amino acids mediate fast excitatory neurotransmission in the vertebrate CNS via ligand-gated cationic channels in the neuronal membrane. These channels are composed of different subunits that assemble into a functional receptor/channel complex. Although studies have shown that these subunits are differentially expressed in neurons, few studies have quantitatively addressed the cell-specific expression of glutamate subunits in relation to known glutamatergic pathways. In the vertebrate auditory system, glutamate is the proposed neurotransmitter of the auditory nerve and parallel fiber pathways. In situ hybridization histochemistry was used to localize AMPA-selective glutamate receptor subunit mRNAs in seven cell types of the rat cochlear nucleus. GluR1-GluR4 AMPA- selective subunits were all expressed in cochlear nucleus neurons; however, the subunits expressed in identified cells varied with the cell type. Granule cells, previously not known to receive glutamatergic input, expressed GluR2 and GluR4 subunits. Cartwheel and stellate interneurons in the dorsal cochlear nucleus, which receive parallel fiber input, expressed all four subunits. Neurons receiving synaptic input from the auditory nerve, including globular, round, spherical, and fusiform cells, expressed GluR2, GluR3, and GluR4 subunits. Furthermore, a subpopulation of round cells in the ventral cochlear nucleus, and fusiform cells in the dorsal cochlear nucleus, expressed the GluR3 subunit at greatly reduced levels compared to neighboring cells. The results confirm the auditory nerve and parallel fiber pathways as glutamatergic and identify a third synaptic population, projecting to granule cells, which is likely glutamatergic. The data suggest that the composition of GluR1-GluR4 subunits on neurons in the cochlear nucleus may be related to presynaptic input; moreover, heterogeneous patterns of expression of the GluR3 subunit, in addition, suggest that variability in mRNA levels within one population of morphologically defined cells is present.