In neurons, translation of dendritically localized mRNAs is thought to play a role in affecting synaptic efficacy. Inasmuch as components of the translation machinery may be limiting in dendrites, we investigated the mechanisms by which translation of five dendritically localized mRNAs is initiated. The 5' leader sequences of mRNAs encoding the activity-regulated cytoskeletal protein, the alpha subunit of calcium-calmodulin-dependent kinase II, dendrin, the microtubule-associated protein 2, and neurogranin (RC3) were evaluated for their ability to affect translation in the 5' untranslated region of a monocistronic reporter mRNA. In both neural and nonneural cell lines, the activity-regulated cytoskeletal protein, microtubule-associated protein 2, and alpha-CaM Kinase II leader sequences enhanced translation, whereas the dendrin and RC3 5' untranslated regions slightly inhibited translation as compared with controls. When cap-dependent translation of these constructs was suppressed by overexpression of a protein that binds the cap-binding protein eIF4E, it was revealed that translation of these mRNAs had both cap-dependent and cap-independent components. The cap-independent component was further analyzed by inserting the 5' leader sequences into the intercistronic region of dicistronic mRNAs. All five leader sequences mediated internal initiation via internal ribosome entry sites (IRESes). The RC3 IRES was most active and was further characterized after transfection in primary neurons. Although translation mediated by this IRES occurred throughout the cell, it was relatively more efficient in dendrites. These data suggest that IRESes may increase translation efficiency at postsynaptic sites after synaptic activation.