To test the specificity of N-acetylaspartate (NAA) as a neuronal marker for proton nuclear magnetic resonance (1H NMR) spectroscopy, purified and characterized cultured cells were analyzed for their NAA content using both 1H NMR and HPLC. Cell types studied included cerebellar granule neurons, type-1 astrocytes, meningeal cells, oligodendrocyte-type-2 astrocyte (O-2A) progenitor cells, and oligodendrocytes. A high concentration of NAA was found in extracts of cerebellar granule neurons (approximately 12 nmol/mg of protein), whereas NAA remained undetectable in purified type-1 astrocytes, meningeal cells, and mature oligodendrocytes. However, twice the neuronal level of NAA was found in O-2A progenitors grown in vitro. In addition significant levels of NAA were also detected in cultures of immature oligodendrocytes. Our data partly support previous suggestions that NAA may be a useful neuronal marker for 1H NMR spectroscopic examination of the adult brain. However, they also raise the further possibility that alterations of NAA associated with some specific brain disorders, particularly disorders seen in newborn and young children, may reflect abnormalities in the development of oligodendroglia or their precursors.