L-Kynurenine and quinolinic acid are neuroactive L-tryptophan-kynurenine pathway metabolites of potential importance in pathogenesis and treatment of neurologic disease. To identify precursors of these metabolites in brain, [(2)H(3) ]-L-kynurenine was infused subcutaneously by osmotic pump into three groups of gerbils: controls, CNS-localized immune-activated, and systemically immune-activated. The specific activity of L-kynurenine and quinolinate in blood, brain and systemic tissues at equilibrium was then quantified by mass spectrometry and the results applied to a model of metabolism to differentiate the relative contributions of various metabolic precursors. In control gerbils, 22% of L-kynurenine in brain was derived via local synthesis from L-tryptophan/formylkynurenine versus 78% from L-kynurenine from blood. Quinolinate in brain was derived from several sources, including: local tissue L-tryptophan/formylkynurenine (10%), blood L-kynurenine (35%), blood 3-hydroxykynurenine/3-hydroxyanthranilate (7%), and blood quinolinate (48%). After systemic immune-activation, however, L-kynurenine in brain was derived exclusively from blood, whereas quinolinate in brain was derived from three sources: blood L-kynurenine (52%), blood 3-hydroxykynurenine or 3-hydroxyanthranilate (8%), and blood quinolinate (40%). During CNS-localized immune activation, > 98% of both L-kynurenine and quinolinate were derived via local synthesis in brain. Thus, immune activation and its site determine the sources from which L-kynurenine and quinolinate are synthesized in brain. Successful therapeutic modulation of their concentrations must take into account the metabolic and compartment sources.