Neuronal mRNA is thought to be restricted to perikaryal and dendritic compartments containing rough endoplasmic reticulum. We have used both in situ hybridization and DNA polymerase chain reaction methods to determine the precise intracellular distribution of oxytocin mRNA. Using light- and electron-microscopic detection of in situ hybridization with 5'-bromo-2'-deoxyuridine-labeled oligonucleotide probes, we found oxytocin mRNA in axons and Herring bodies in the lateral and ventral hypothalamus, the median eminence, and the posterior lobe of the pituitary in postpartum lactating rats. Southern blot analysis of the amplification products confirmed the presence of oxytocin mRNA in all three tissue samples. The present findings indicate that oxytocin mRNA can be transported axonally. Such transport could reflect an adventitious compartmentalization or a functional storage in Herring bodies for subsequent secretion.