The purpose of the present study was to investigate the effect of aluminum on gap junctional intercellular communication (GJIC) in cultured astrocytes. In the CNS the extracellular environment and metabolic status of neurons is dependent upon astrocytes, which are known to exhibit GJIC. This cell-to-cell communication provides a cytoplasmic continuity between adjacent cells, allowing exchange of diverse ions, second messengers, and metabolites. To study the effects of aluminum intoxication on GJIC in cultured glial cells, astroglial cell cultures obtained from fetal rat brains were exposed to aluminum lactate for 2-6 weeks. To demonstrate the metabolic coupling of neighboring cells, the technique of microinjection of the gap junction permeable substance neurobiotin was performed. Whereas in controls intensive GJIC was observed by dye transfer of neurobiotin from the microinjected cell into the adjacent astrocytes, aluminum treatment significantly impaired this cellular communication. As aluminum is known to affect cytoskeletal elements, additional investigations into the organization of intermediate filaments (glial fibrillary acid protein, GFAP) and microfilaments in control astrocytes and subsequent aluminum exposure were performed with the aid of fluorescence microscopy and rapid-freeze, deep-etch electron microscopy. Aluminum exposure led to an aggregation of GFAP-positive filaments near to the cell nucleus, accompanied by a destruction of the actin cytoskeleton, especially close to the cell membrane. Ultrastructurally these data could be verified as prominent areas without actin filaments contacting the cell membrane detectable in aluminum-treated astrocytes. Immunohistochemical staining of Cx43 revealed an impaired trafficking of this connexin into the cell prolongations following aluminum treatment, although electron-microscopic data revealed that gap junctions between adjacent astrocytes were still present after aluminum incubation for 24 days. In conclusion, in cultured astrocytes the morphological integrity of microfilaments and the intermediate filament network seem to be fundamental for the translocation of connexins from Golgi complex into the cellular prolongation to exhibit proper and extensive cellular communication through gap junctions.