D1- and D2-dopamine receptor-mediated regulation of immediate early gene levels in identified populations of neurons in the striatum was examined with quantitative in situ hybridization histochemical techniques. Levels of messenger RNA (mRNA) encoding the immediate early genes zif268 and c-fos were examined in two experiments in rats with unilateral lesions of the nigrostriatal dopamine pathway. In a dose- response study, animals were treated with doses of 0.5, 1.0, and 1.5 mg/kg of the D1 agonist SKF-38393 either alone or in combination with the D2 agonist quinpirole (1 mg/kg). Levels of immediate early gene mRNAs 60 min following drug treatments showed a dose-related increase to the D1 agonist alone and a potentiation to combined D1 and D2 against treatment. In a second experiment, in animals receiving 1 mg/kg SKF-38393 either alone or in combination with 1 mg/kg quinpirole, the level of zif268 mRNA was measured with a double-labeling method in striatal neurons containing enkephalin mRNA, a marker of D2-containing neurons, and in neurons not containing enkephalin, putative D1- containing neurons. In the dopamine-depleted striatum, D1 agonist treatment alone did not affect enkephalin-positive neurons but significantly elevated zif268 mRNA levels in nearly all enkephalin- negative neurons. Combined D1 and D2 agonist treatment further increased zif268 mRNA levels in this population of enkephalin-negative neurons and decreased zif-268 mRNA levels in enkephalin-positive neurons. These data indicate that the synergistic response to combined D1- and D2-receptor stimulation is mediated by interneuronal interactions involving the activation of D1 and D2 receptors on separate populations of striatal neurons.