191 randomly selected cDNA clones prepared from rat brain cytoplasmic poly (A)+ RNA were screened by Northern blot hybridization to rat brain, liver and kidney RNA to determine the tissue distribution, abundance and size of the corresponding brain mRNA. 18% hybridized to mRNAs each present equally in the three tissues, 26% to mRNAs differentially expressed in the tissues, and 30% to mRNAs present only in the brain. An additional 26% of the clones failed to detect mRNA in the three tissues at an abundance level of about 0.01%, but did contain rat cDNA as demonstrated by Southern blotting; this class probably represents rare mRNAs expressed in only some brain cells. Therefore, most mRNA expressed in brain is either specific to brain or otherwise displays regulation. Rarer mRNA species tend to be larger than the more abundant species, and tend to be brain specific; the rarest, specific mRNAs average 5000 nucleotides in length. Ten percent of the clones hybridize to multiple mRNAs, some of which are expressed from small multigenic families. From these data we estimate that there are probably at most 30,000 distinct mRNA species expressed in the rat brain, the majority of which are uniquely expressed in the brain.