The effects of arachidonic acid on glutamate and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) uptake were studied in primary cultures of astrocytes and neurons prepared from rat cerebral cortex. The uptake rates of glutamate and GABA in astrocytic cultures were 10.4 nmol/mg protein/min and 0.125 nmol/mg protein/min, respectively. The uptake rates of glutamate and GABA in neuronal cultures were 3.37 nmol/mg protein/min and 1.53 nmol/mg protein/min. Arachidonic acid inhibited glutamate uptake in both astrocytes and neurons. The inhibitory effect was observed within 10 min of incubation with arachidonic acid and reached approximately 80% within 120 min in both types of culture. The arachidonic acid effect was not only time-dependent, but also dose-related. Arachidonic acid, at concentrations of 0.015 and 0.03 mumol/mg protein, significantly inhibited glutamate uptake in neurons, whereas 20 times higher concentrations were required for astrocytes. The effects of arachidonic acid were not as deleterious on GABA uptake as on glutamate uptake in both astrocytes and neurons. In astrocytes, GABA uptake was not affected by any of the doses of arachidonic acid studied (0.015-0.6 mumol/mg protein). In neuronal cultures, GABA uptake was inhibited, but not to the same degree observed with glutamate uptake. Lower doses of arachidonic acid (0.03 and 0.015 mumol/mg protein) did not affect neuronal GABA uptake. Other polyunsaturated fatty acids, such as docosahexaenoic acid, affected amino acid uptake in a manner similar to arachidonic acid in both astrocytes and neurons. However, saturated fatty acids, such as palmitic acid, exerted no such effect. The significance of the arachidonic acid-induced inhibition of neurotransmitter uptake in cultured brain cells in various pathological states is discussed.