This study was concerned with the distribution of a variety of putative neuromodulator and neurotransmitter systems in auditory regions of the rat brainstem using in situ hybridization histochemistry. Serial brain sections were screened for the presence of mRNAs for (i) precursors of the neuroactive substances cholecystokinin, somatostatin, proenkephalin and substance (preprotachykinin), (ii) glutamic acid decarboxylase, the key synthesizing enzyme for GABA, or (iii) subunits alpha 1, alpha 2 and alpha 3 of the GABA(A) receptor. Detectable message for all of these probes was found in at least one auditory brainstem area, There were clear differences in the distribution of the various mRNAs in subregions of the inferior colliculus, superior olivary complex, lateral lemniscus and cochlear nucleus. Cells expressing mRNA for glutamic acid decarboxylase were most prominent in the inferior colliculus, but were also present in all lower auditory brainstem nuclei, except the medial superior olivary nucleus and medial nucleus of trapezoid body. The mRNA for GABA(A) alpha 1 receptor subunits was detectable in all auditory regions investigated, although at different levels of expression, GABA(A) alpha(2) and alpha(3) mRNA signals were seen in inferior colliculus, lateral lemniscus and in almost all superior olivary complex regions, but in fewer cells and at lower levels than the GABA(A) alpha 1 subtype. Moderate to high levels of preprocholecystokinin mRNA expression were seen in all subregions of the inferior colliculus. In other auditory brainstem areas, preprocholecystokinin mRNA levels were either low or absent. With regard to mRNAs for the neuroactive peptides somatostatin, preprotachykinin and preproenkephalin, all were expressed in the inferior colliculus but there were differences in their cellular distribution. For example, there were almost no preprotachykinin mRNA expressing cells in the central nucleus of inferior colliculus and levels of somatostatin mRNA were especially high in the dorsal cortex and in layer 3 of the external cortex of inferior colliculus. There were also differences in the pattern of expression of these mRNAs in the various brainstem auditory nuclei; there was no preprotachykinin mRNA in any part of the superior olivary complex, only somatostatin mRNA was found in the ventral cochlear nucleus, and expression of preproenkephalin mRNA was pronounced in the ventral nucleus of the trapezoid body and the rostral periolivary zone. The data are considered in light of the connectivity and functional organization of the auditory brainstem.