Using high resolution autoradiographic techniques, the distribution of radioactivity in forebrain and brainstem was assessed after IV injection of 3H-impramine or 3H-desipramine. Results were compared with regional binding of the drugs to brain sections in vitro. Similar topographic binding of 3H-imipramine and 3H-desipramine was observed in vitro among brain regions, except in the paraventricular nucleus of the hypothalamus and locus coeruleus, where binding was greater for 3H-desipramine. For both 3H-desipramine and 3H-imipramine, some brain regions that exhibited high binding in vitro also showed high accumulation after in vivo injection. However, certain regions that contained high densities of binding sites for the antidepressant drugs as measured by in vitro binding showed very low accumulation of radioactivity after in vivo treatment. Such regions included the dentate gyrus of the hippocampus, layer 1 of piriform cortex, caudate-putamen, pontine and midbrain central gray, and cerebellar granular layer. Compared to in vitro binding of the drugs, the distribution of imipramine and desipramine in vivo appears more anatomically selective. For imipramine, primary sites of action in vivo, as indicated by the topographic distribution in brain, appear to be the locus coeruleus, hippocampus, lateral septal nucleus, and amygdala. For desipramine, the greatest accumulation in vivo was found in the locus coeruleus, paraventricular nucleus of the hypothalamus, and anterior thalamic nuclei.