Inhibition of succinate dehydrogenase (SDH) by the mitochondrial toxin 3-nitropropionic acid (3-NP) has gained acceptance as an animal model of Huntington's disease. In this study 13C NMR spectroscopy was used to measure the tricarboxylic acid (TCA) cycle rate in the rat brain after 3-NP treatment. The time course of both glutamate C4 and C3 13C labelling was monitored in vivo during an infusion of [1-13C]glucose. Data were fitted by a mathematical model to yield the TCA cycle rate (Vtca) and the exchange rate between alpha-ketoglutarate and glutamate (Vx). 3-NP treatment induced a 18% decrease in Vtca from 0.71 +/- 0.02 micro mol/g/min in the control group to 0.58 +/- 0.02 micro mol/g/min in the 3-NP group (p < 0.001). Vx increased from 0.88 +/- 0.08 micro mol/g/min in the control group to 1.33 +/- 0.24 micro mol/g/min in the 3-NP group (p < 0.07). Fitting the C4 glutamate time course alone under the assumption that Vx is much higher than Vtca yielded Vtca=0.43 micro mol/g/min in both groups. These results suggest that both Vtca and Vx are altered during 3-NP treatment, and that both glutamate C4 and C3 labelling time courses are necessary to obtain a reliable measurement of Vtca.