The water channel aquaporin 4 (AQP4) is abundantly expressed in astrocytes. There is now compelling evidence that AQP4 may contribute to an unfavorable course in brain edema. Acute lead intoxication is a condition that causes brain damage preceded by brain edema. Here we report that lead increases AQP4 water permeability (P(f)) in astrocytes. A rat astrocyte cell line that does not express aquaporin 4 was transiently transfected with aquaporin 4 tagged with green fluorescent protein (GFP). Using confocal laser scanning microscopy we measured water permeability in these cells and in AQP4-negative cells located on the same plate. AQP4-expressing astrocytes had a three-fold higher water permeability than astrocytes not expressing AQP4. Lead exposure induced a significant, 40%, increase in water permeability in astrocytes expressing AQP4, but had no effect on P(f) in astrocytes not expressing AQP4. The increase in water permeability persisted after lead washout, while treatment with a lead chelator, meso-2,3-dimercaptosuccinic acid, abolished the lead-induced increase in P(f). The effect of lead was attenuated in the presence of a calcium (Ca(2+))/calmodulin-dependent protein kinase II (CaMKII) inhibitor, but not in the presence of a protein kinase C inhibitor. In cells expressing AQP4 where the consensus site for CaMKII phosphorylation was mutated, lead failed to increase water permeability. Lead exposure also increased P(f) in rat astroglial cells in primary culture, which express endogenous AQP4. Lead had no effect on P(f) in astrocytes transfected with aquaporin 3. In situ hybridization studies on rat brain after oral lead intake for three days showed no change in distribution of AQP4 mRNA. It is suggested that lead-triggered stimulation of water transport in AQP4-expressing astrocytes may contribute to the pathology of acute lead intoxication.