To investigate the molecular basis of regional variation in expression of brain acetylcholinesterase (AChE; EC 220.127.116.11), steady-state levels of AChE activity and mRNA were examined. Relative AChE activity in Triton extracts from six areas of the rat brain varied as follows: cortex < cerebellum < medulla < pons-midbrain < thalamus < striatum. In contralateral samples from the same brains, AChE mRNA was assessed by Northern blotting with random-primed 32P-labeled cDNA. The regional abundance of the major 2.4-kb AChE transcript differed from that of the enzyme activity: cortex < striatum < cerebellum < medulla < thalamus < pons-midbrain. In situ hybridization with a 33P-labeled antisense AChE oligonucleotide provided evidence for high levels of AChE message in cells of the nucleus basalis, nucleus accumbens, neostriatum, substantia nigra, motor nucleus of the facial nerve, and spinal nucleus of the trigeminal nerve. In the caudate-putamen, large, heavily labeled neurons were not numerous, but they were approximately as frequent as the cholinergic interneurons revealed by choline acetyltransferase immunocytochemistry. The relatively low number of these AChE-expressing cells probably explains the relative dearth of AChE mRNA-like material in the neostriatum.