The role of lactate in brain energy metabolism has recently received renewed attention. Although blood-borne monocarboxylates such as lactate poorly cross the blood-brain barrier in the adult brain, lactate produced within the brain parenchyma may be a suitable substrate for brain cells. Lactate dehydrogenase is crucial for both the production and utilization of lactate. In this article, we report the regional distribution of the messenger RNAs for lactate dehydrogenase isoforms 1 and 5 in the adult rat brain using in situ hybridization histochemistry with specific [alpha-(35)S]dATP 3' end-labeled oligoprobes. The autoradiographs revealed that the lactate dehydrogenase-1 messenger RNA is highly expressed in a variety of brain structures, including the main olfactory bulb, the piriform cortex, several thalamic and hypothalamic nuclei, the pontine nuclei, the ventral cochlear nucleus, the trigeminal nerve and the solitary tractus nucleus. In addition, the granular and Purkinje cell layers of the cerebellum showed a strong labeling. The neocortex (e.g., cingular, retrosplenial and frontoparietal cortices) often exhibits a marked laminar pattern of distribution of lactate dehydrogenase-1 messenger RNA (layers II/III, IV and VI being most strongly labeled). In contrast, expression of the lactate dehydrogenase-5 messenger RNA generally seemed more diffusely distributed across the different brain regions. Expression was particularly strong in the hippocampal formation (especially in Ammon's horn and dentate gyrus) and in the cerebral cortex, where no laminar pattern of distribution was observed. Overall, these data are consistent with the emerging idea that lactate is an important energy substrate produced and consumed by brain cells.