The nature and function of previously described perineuronal nets are still obscure. In the present study their polyanionic components were demonstrated in the rat brain using colloidal iron hydroxide (CIH) staining. In subcortical regions, such as the red nucleus, cerebellar, and vestibular nuclei, most neurons were ensheathed by CIH-binding material. In the cerebral cortex perineuronal nets were seen around numerous nonpyramidal neurons. Biotinylated hyaluronectin revealed that hyaluronan occurs in perineuronal nets. Two plant lectins [Wisteria floribunda agglutinin (WFA) and Vicia villosa agglutinin (VVA)] with affinity for N-acetylgalactosamine visualized perineuronal nets similar to those rich in anionic components. Glutamic acid decarboxylase (GAD)-immunoreactive synaptic boutons were shown to occupy numerous meshes of perineuronal VVA-positive nets. Electron microscopically, VVA binding sites were scattered throughout perisynaptic profiles, but accumulated at membranes and in the extra-cellular space except not in synaptic clefts. To investigate the spatial relationship between glial cell processes and perineuronal nets, two astrocytic markers (S100-protein and glutamine synthetase) were visualized at the light and electron microscopic level. Two methods to detect microglia by the use of Griffonia simplicifolia agglutinin (GSA I-B4) and the monoclonal antibody, OX-42, were also applied. Labelled structures forming perineuronal nets were observed with both astrocytic, but not with microglial, markers. It is concluded that perineuronal nets are composed of a specialized type of glia-associated extracellular matrix rich in polyanionic groups and N-acetylgalactosamine. The net-like appearance is due to perisynaptic arrangement of the astrocytic processes and these extracellular components. Similar to the ensheathment of nodes of Ranvier, perineuronal nets may provide a special ion buffering capacity required around various, perhaps highly active, types of neurons. © 1993 Wiley-Liss, Inc.