Excitotoxicity, which is mediated by the excessive activation of glutamate receptors, has been implicated in the pathogenesis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). There is substantial information about the distribution and function of ionotropic glutamate receptors in the spinal cord, although the role of metabotropic glutamate receptors (mGluRs) is poorly understood in this region of the brain, particularly under pathological conditions. We used immunocytochemistry to study the general distribution of group I and group II mGluR immunoreactivity in the human spinal cord, as well as the cell-specific expression of these receptors. We also investigated whether mGluR expression was altered in the spinal cord of patients with sporadic and familial ALS. Immunocytochemical analysis of control human spinal cord demonstrated that mGluR1α and mGluR5 (group I mGluRs) were highly represented in neuronal cells throughout the spinal cord. mGluR1α showed the highest relative level of expression in ventral horn neurons (laminae VIII and IX), whereas intense mGluR5 immunoreactivity was observed within the dorsal horn (superficial laminae I and II). Group II mGluRs (mGluR2/3) immunoreactivity was mainly concentrated in the inner part of the lamina II. With respect to specific neuronal populations, mGluR2/3 and mGluR5 appeared to be most frequently expressed in calbindin-containing and calretinin-containing cells, respectively. In control spinal cord only sparse astrocytes showed a weak to moderate mGluR immunoreactivity. Regional differences in immunoreactivity were apparent in ALS compared to control. In particular, mGluR expression was increased in reactive glial cells in both gray (ventral horn) and white matter of ALS spinal cord. Upregulation of mGluRs in reactive astrocytes may represent a critical mechanism for modulation of glial function and changes in glial-neuronal communication in the course of neurodegenerative diseases. © 2001 IBRO. Published by Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved.