To date, two structurally related RNA-editing enzymes with adenosine deaminase activity have been identified in mammalian tissue: ADAR1 and ADAR2 [Bass B. I. et al. (1997) RNA 3, 947-949]. In rodents, ADAR2 undergoes alternative RNA splicing, giving rise to two splice variants that differ by the presence or absence of a 10-amino-acid insert in the carboxy-terminal catalytic domain. However, the physiological significance of the splicing and its regional and developmental regulation are as yet unknown. The present study examined spatial and temporal patterns of ADAR2 gene transcripts within specific neuronal populations of rat brain. The two rodent ADAR2 isoforms were expressed at comparable levels at all ages examined. rADAR2 messenger RNA expression was first detectable in the thalamic nuclei formation at embryonic day E19. The rADAR2b insert and rADAR2a splice probes produced images similar to that of the rADAR2 pan probe. At birth, rADAR2a messenger RNA splice variants were abundantly expressed in the thalamic nuclei. No signal for any probe was detectable in other brain regions, including neocortex, hippocampus, striatum and cerebellum at this stage of development. During the first week of postnatal life, rADAR2 messenger RNA expression (detected with the pan probe) increased gradually in several brain regions, with low expression detected at postnatal day P7 in the olfactory bulb, inferior colliculus, and within the pyramidal and granule cell layers of the hippocampus. Hybridization patterns of the rADAR2a variant probe reached peak expression at about the second week of life, while peak expression of the rADAR2b probe was reached at about the third week of life. At the end of the first week of life (P7), expression of both splice variants was strongest in the thalamic nuclei. By P14, rADAR2 messenger RNA expression was more consolidated in the deeper structures, including the thalamic nuclei and the granule cell layer of the cerebellum. By P21, maximal levels of rADARb expression were observed in the thalamic nuclei, inferior colliculus, cerebellum and pontine nuclei. In the adult, rADAR2 messenger RNA expression was of highest intensity in the thalamic nuclei, with high levels of expression in the olfactory bulb, inferior colliculus, cerebellum and pontine nuclei. At the level of the hippocampus, positive labelling was restricted to the CA3 region of the Ammon's horn and the dentate gyrus, with weak signals in the CA1 subfield. rADAR2 pan expression was at near background levels throughout the neocortex and caudate putamen. In summary, our study shows that ADAR2 messenger RNA expression is regulated in a cell-specific manner throughout development. At early ages, ADAR2 messenger RNA is expressed only within (and restricted to) the thalamic nuclei. By the third postnatal week, expression of the editase enzyme is more widely distributed throughout the olfactory bulb, CA3 and dentate gyrus of the hippocampus, thalamus, inferior colliculus and the molecular cell layer of the cerebellum. ADAR2 is thought to act at specific nucleotide positions in primary transcripts encoding glutamate receptor subunits, thereby altering gating and ionic permeability properties of AMPA- and kainate-activated channels. ADAR2 also acts at pre-messenger RNA encoding the serotonin 5HT-2C receptor to alter G-protein coupling. Thus, RNA editing may be an important mechanism for fine-tuning of the physiological and pharmacological properties of transmitter receptors of the central nervous system.