The distribution of cells expressing vasoactive intestinal peptide/peptide histidine isoleucineamide precursor messenger RNA was investigated in the rat brain and pituitary by in situ hybridization using a synthetic 35S-labeled oligonucleotide probe. Detection of labeled neurons by light-microscopic radioautography revealed a selective repartition of the messenger RNA-expressing cells. Several major vasoactive intestinal peptide/peptide histidine isoleucine-amide messenger RNA-containing cell groups were demonstrated including layers II-VI of the cerebral cortex, the suprachiasmatic nucleus and various thalamic structures such as the ventrolateral, posterior, lateral reticular, paracentralis and gelatinosus nuclei. Positive cells, to a lesser extent, were also found in the limbic system, medial preoptic area, superior and inferior colliculi as well as in the central gray matter. They were totally absent in the pituitary and the pineal gland of normal rats. The results of the present study provide a detailed mapping of neurons expressing vasoactive intestinal peptide/peptide histidine isoleucine-amide messenger RNA in the adult rat brain. The predominance of vasoactive intestinal peptide/peptide histidine isoleucine-amide messenger RNA-containing neurons in the cerebral cortex, suprachiasmatic nucleus and thalamus suggest that vasoactive intestinal peptide is mainly involved in the control of cortical informations, circadian rhythms and sensory perception in agreement with several physiological data.