The branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs)--isoleucine, leucine, and valine--belong to the limited group of substances transported through the blood-brain barrier. One of the functions they are thought to have in brain is to serve as substrates for meeting parenchymal energy demands. Previous studies have shown the ubiquitous expression of a branched-chain alpha-keto acid dehydrogenase among neural cells. This enzyme catalyzes the initial and rate-limiting step in the irreversible degradative pathway for the carbon skeleton of valine and the other two branched-chain amino acids. Unlike the acyl-CoA derivates in the irreversible part of valine catabolism, 3-hydroxyisobutyrate could be expected to be released from cells by transport across the mitochondrial and plasma membranes. This could indeed be demonstrated for cultured astroglial cells. Therefore, to assess the ability of neural cells to make use of this valine-derived carbon skeleton as a metabolic substrate for the generation of energy, we investigated the expression in cultured neural cells of the enzyme processing this hydroxy acid, 3-hydroxyisobutyrate dehydrogenase (HIBDH). To achieve this, HIBDH was purified from bovine liver to serve as antigen for the production of an antiserum. Affinity-purified antibodies against HIBDH specifically recognized the enzyme in liver and brain homogenates. Immunocytochemistry demonstrated the ubiquitous expression of HIBDH among cultured glial (astroglial, oligodendroglial, microglial, and ependymal cells) and neuronal cells. Using an RT-PCR technique, these findings were corroborated by the detection of HIBDH mRNA in these cells. Furthermore, immunofluorescence double-labeling of astroglial cells with antisera against HIBDH and the mitochondrial marker pyruvate dehydrogenase localized HIBDH to mitochondria. The expression of HIBDH in neural cells demonstrates their potential to utilize valine imported into the brain for the generation of energy.