Skeletal muscle ACh receptors (AChRs) accumulate at neuromuscular junctions (nmjs) at least partly because of the selective induction of AChR subunit genes in subsynaptic myotube nuclei by the motor nerve terminal. Additionally, mammalian AChRs undergo a postnatal change in subunit composition from embryonic (alpha 2 beta gamma delta) to adult (alpha 2 beta epsilon delta) forms, a switch that also depends on innervation. ARIA, a protein purified from chicken brains based on its ability to induce AChR synthesis in primary chick muscle cells, is a strong candidate for being the molecule responsible for these early developmental events. ARIA mRNA has been detected in embryonic motor neurons during synapse formation, and the gene continues to be expressed postnatally. In this report, we provide evidence that ARIA- like immunoreactivity is concentrated in rat motor nerve terminals from early postnatal ages, and that it can be detected in motor neurons in E18 embryos. ARIA is also detectable in axons within colchicine-treated sciatic nerves, suggesting that the protein in the nerve terminal has been transported from the cell body. ARIA mRNA is present in, but not restricted to, cholinergic neurons. Likewise, we report here that ARIA- like immunoreactivity is present in some noncholinergic central synapses. We also present evidence that isoforms of ARIA are differentially distributed among functionally distinct classes of neurons.