Transferrin (Tf) is known primarily for its role in the transport and cellular uptake of iron (Fe). Tf is also the major serum binding protein for Al. In this study, primary rat oligodendrocyte, neuron and astrocyte cultures were found to differ in Tf mediated Fe and Al uptake and in the effect of Al-Tf on Fe-Tf uptake during 4 h incubation periods. When incubated with Al-Tf (1.25 microM), oligodendrocytes displayed a 3- to 4-fold increase (p=.0002) in Al, neurons demonstrated a much smaller (p=.06) increase, and no increase was seen for astrocytes. When incubated with equimolar Al citrate or Al chloride, no increase in cellular Al was seen in any of the three cell types. Oligodendrocytes, astrocytes and neurons all demonstrated greater 59Fe uptake from Fe-Tf than Fe chloride. This uptake could be inhibited by excess Fe-Tf in oligodendrocytes and neurons, but not astrocytes. A small but significant inhibition of 59Fe uptake from Fe-Tf was seen after addition of Al-Tf to the incubation medium of oligodendrocytes, but not neurons or astrocytes. Oligodendrocytes may be particularly vulnerable to the accumulation of excess intracellular Al, and to interference of Al with Fe uptake. Such effects could contribute to Al-induced neurotoxicity if they result in altered myelin formation or maintenance.