Neuronal signaling requires that synaptic proteins be appropriately localized within the cell and regulated there. In mammalian neurons, polyribosomes are found not just in the cell body, but also in dendrites where they are concentrated within or beneath the dendritic spine. The alpha subunit of Ca(2+)-calmodulin-dependent protein kinase II (CaMKII alpha) is one of only five mRNAs known to be present within the dendrites, as well as in the soma of neurons. This targeted subcellular localization of the mRNA for CaMKII alpha provides a possible cell biological mechanism both for controlling the distribution of the cognate protein and for regulating independently the level of protein expression in individual dendritic spines. To characterize the cis-acting elements involved in the localization of dendritic mRNA we have produced two lines of transgenic mice in which the CaMKII alpha promoter is used to drive the expression of a lacZ transcript, which either contains or lacks the 3'-untranslated region of the CaMKII alpha gene. Although both lines of mice show expression in forebrain neurons that parallels the expression of the endogenous CaMKII alpha gene, only the lacZ transcripts bearing the 3'-untranslated region are localized to dendrites. The beta-galactosidase protein shows a variable level of expression along the dendritic shaft and within dendritic spines, which suggests that neurons can control the local biochemistry of the dendrite either through differential localization of the mRNA or variations in the translational efficiency at different sites along the dendrite.