Photodynamic therapy is a promising treatment for human brain tumors because of the selective retention of certain compounds by tumor cells. Certain lipophilic cationic compounds, such as tetraphenylphosphonium (TPP), are selectively taken up by a variety of carcinomas. Although preferential retention of TPP has been demonstrated for the breast carcinoma cell line MCF-7, this compound had not been tested previously on cells derived from nervous system tumors. In the present study, tritiated-TPP (3H-TPP) uptake and retention for eight different cell cultures of three histologically different types of nervous system tumors was measured and the data were compared to a positive control (MCF-7) and negative controls (normal African Green monkey kidney epithelium (CV-1) and the normal human fibroblast (WI-38) cell lines). Uptake and retention characteristics could be grouped by specific pathological tumor types, but individual tumor variability was notable. Malignant astrocytoma (grade III/III glioblastoma) and malignant neurofibrosarcoma cells showed preferential uptake and retention of 3H-TPP relative to meningioma cells and normal controls. A clonogenic assay utilizing the cytotoxic lipophilic cationic compound dequalinium showed strong retainers of 3H-TPP to be more susceptible to the effects of dequalinium than weak retainers. These data demonstrate that certain human and experimental animal nervous system tumor cell lines retain lipophilic compounds possessing a delocalized positive charge. Lipophilic cationic compounds may be useful in the intraoperative delineation of tumor margins and in the photodynamic therapy of certain nervous system tumors.