The accumulation of glutamate in the extracellular space in the central nervous system (CNS) plays a major part in ischemic and anoxic damage. In this study, we examined the effect of glutamate on the expression and activity of P-glycoprotein (P-gp) in rat brain microvessel endothelial cells (RBMECs) making up the blood-brain barrier (BBB). The level of P-gp expression significantly increased in RBMECs after the treatment of 100 microM glutamate. At this concentration, glutamate also enhanced rat mdr1a and mdr1b mRNA levels determined by RT-PCR analysis. Flow cytometry was used to study P-gp activity by analysis of intracellular rhodamine123 (Rh123) accumulation. Overexpression of P-gp resulted in a decreased intracellular accumulation of Rh123 in RBMECs. Glutamate-induced increase of intracellular reactive oxygen species (ROS) was observed by using the 2',7'-dichlorofluorescein (2',7'-DCF) assay. MK-801, a non-competitive N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptor antagonist, and ROS scavenger N-acetylcysteine obviously blocked ROS generation and attenuated the changes of both expression and activity of P-gp induced by glutamate in RBMECs. These data suggested that glutamate up-regulated P-gp expression in RBMECs by an NMDA receptor-mediated mechanism and that glutamate-induced generation of ROS was linked to the regulation of P-gp expression. Therefore, transport of P-gp substrates in BBB appears to be affected during ischemic and anoxic injury.