The hypoxia-inducible factor (HIF-1alpha), a basic helix-loop-helix transcription factor, is known to heterodimerize with ARNT1, a nuclear translocator, to trigger the overexpression in many cells of genes involved in resistance to hypoxia. Although HIF-1alpha and ARNT1 are both expressed in brain, their cellular localization and function therein are unknown. Here, using in situ hybridization and immunocytochemistry, we show that HIF-1alpha is expressed in normoxic cerebral neurons together with not only ARNT1 but also ARNT2, a cerebral translocator homologous to ARNT1 but displaying, unlike ARNT1, a selective neuronal expression. In contrast, other potential partners of the translocators, i.e. the aryl hydrocarbon receptor (AHR) and the single-minded protein 2 (SIM2), are not expressed in the adult brain. We also identify two splice variants of HIF-1alpha in brain, one of which dimerizes with ARNT2 even more avidly than with ARNT1. The resulting heterodimer, in contrast with the HIF-1alpha/ARNT1 complex, does not recognize the HIF-1-binding site of the hypoxia-induced erythropoietin (Epo) gene, suggesting that it controls transcription of a distinct set of genes. We therefore propose that HIF-1alpha and ARNT2 function as preferential dimerization partners in neurons to control specific responses, some of which may not be triggered by hypoxia. In support of this proposal, in nonhypoxic PC12 cells constitutively coexpressing HIF-1alpha, ARNT1 and ARNT2, downregulation of either HIF-1alpha or ARNT2, obtained with selective antisense nucleotides, resulted in inhibition of [3H]thymidine incorporation.