Several isoenzymes of the Na(+),K(+)-ATPase are expressed in brain but their specific roles are poorly understood. Recently, it was suggested that an isoenzyme of the Na(+),K(+)-ATPase containing the alpha(2) subunit, together with the glutamate transporters GLAST and GLT-1, participate in a coupling mechanism between neuronal activity and energy metabolism taking place in astrocytes. To substantiate this hypothesis, we compared the distribution of alpha(2), GLAST and/or GLT-1 in the rat cerebral cortex using double immunofluorescence and confocal microscopy, and immunocytochemistry at the electron microscopic level. We also investigated the relationship between alpha(2), GLAST or GLT-1 and asymmetrical synaptic junctions (largely glutamatergic) and GABAergic nerve terminals. Results show that the alpha(2) subunit has an exclusive astroglial localization, and that it is almost completely co-distributed with GLAST and GLT-1 when evaluated by confocal microscopy. This similar distribution was confirmed at the ultrastructural level, which further showed that the vast majority of the alpha(2) staining (73% of all labelled elements), like that of GLAST and GLT-1, was located in glial leaflets surrounding dendritic spines and the dendritic and/or axonal elements of asymmetrical (glutamatergic) axo-dendritic synapses. Synapses ensheathed by alpha(2), GLAST or GLT-1 virtually never included (