Although previous studies have demonstrated increased levels of the brain neurotransmitter glutamate (Glu) in the synovial fluid from patients with arthritis, not much attention has been paid to the possible role of Glu in joint synovial tissues to date. Constitutive expression of mRNA was for the first time shown with glutamate aspartate transporter, glutamate transporter-1 and excitatory amino acid carrier-1 (EAAC1), in addition to with particular ionotropic and metabotropic Glu receptors, in cultured synovial fibroblasts prepared from knee joints of male Lewis rats. Immunohistochemical analysis revealed high localization of immunoreactive EAAC1 at synovial tissues. The accumulation of [3H]Glu occurred in a temperature- and sodium-dependent manner in cultured synovial fibroblasts, with a Km of 23.1+/-1.1 microM and a Vmax of 237.1+/-31.1 pmol/(mg protein min), respectively. In rats with arthritis induced by immunization to type-II collagen, marked increases were seen in hind paw volume, cytokine mRNA expression and Glu levels in synovial tissues, in addition to histological erosion. In cultured synovial fibroblasts prepared from these arthritic rats, [3H]Glu accumulation was drastically increased with biochemical and pharmacological profiles similar to those seen in normal synovial fibroblasts. The exposure to Glu at 500 microM doubled the incorporation of 5-bromo-2'-deoxyuridine in cultured synovial fibroblasts of arthritic but not normal rats, without significantly affecting mRNA expression of different cytokines in both synovial fibroblasts. These results suggest that Glu may at least in part play a role in mechanisms associated with cellular proliferation through particular transporters functionally expressed by synovium in rheumatoid arthritis.