Glutamate has been implicated in the pathogenesis of Alzheimer's disease (AD). Controversial data exists regarding changes in the N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptor complex in AD. We wished to elucidate the hypothesis that the NMDA receptor system is involved in the pathogenesis of AD using a gene expression approach targeting the mRNA of the universal subtype of the NMDA receptor NR1. This was performed using in situ hybridization and antisense 35S-labelled oligonucleotides on brain tissue collected at post-mortem. Relative mRNA expression was measured in standardised optical density units (OD units) using videodensitometry without knowledge of the diagnosis. The study population consisted of AD (n = 6) and neurodegenerative non-Alzheimer controls (non-AD, n = 14). Gene expression was measured in the frontal lobe, superior temporal gyrus and three areas within the hippocampus. We have observed no significant differences in the relative mRNA expression of the NR1 subtype of glutamate receptor in the following regions: frontal lobe AD = 60.7 +/- 14.1 OD units mRNA (x +/- 1SE) vs 52.6 +/- 1 in non-AD (Mann-Whitney test, p = 0.477); the superior temporal gyrus: AD = 53.3 +/- 13.9 vs 38.2 +/- 7 (p = 0.37); the CA1 region: AD = 37.8 +/- 7.75 vs 81.5 +/- 25.7 (p = 0.66); subiculum AD = 46.7 +/- 11.0 vs 105 +/- 43.3 (p = 0.82); parahippocampal gyrus AD = 36.6 +/- 9.3 vs 81.7 +/- 40.6 (p = 0.90). There were trends to a reduction in NR1 mRNA in the hippocampus and increased NR1 within the frontal and superficial temporal gyrus which were not significant. There was variation within and between all patients with and without AD in the magnitude of NR1 expression in all anatomical regions studied. The findings suggest heterogeneity in the involvement of the post-synaptic glutamatergic system in AD.