Valproic acid distribution in brain is less than that of other anticonvulsants such as phenytoin or phenobarbital. Possible mechanisms for this decreased distribution space in brain include (a) increased plasma protein binding of valproate relative to the other anticonvulsants and (b) asymmetric blood-brain barrier (BBB) transport of valproate such that the brain-to-blood flux exceeds the blood-to-brain flux. These mechanisms are investigated in the present studies using the intracarotid injection technique in rats and rabbits. In the rat, the brain uptake index (BUI) of [14C]valproate relative to [3H]water is 51 +/- 6%, indicating the blood-to-brain transport of water is twofold greater than that of valproate. However, the BUI of [14C]valproate relative to [3H]water decreased with time after carotid injection during a 4-min washout period, which indicates that brain-to-blood transport of valproate is greater than that of water. This suggests that the permeability of the BBB to valproate is polarized, with antiluminal permeability being much greater than luminal permeability. In rabbits, the BUI of [14C]valproate is 47 +/- 7% in newborns and 17 +/- 6% in adult animals. However, the high drug extraction in newborns may be attributed to decreased cerebral blood flow in the neonate as the BBB permeability-surface area (PS) products are unchanged (e.g., PS = 0.13 and 0.11 ml min-1 X g-1 in the newborn and adult rabbit, respectively). With regard to plasma protein binding effects on valproate transport, brain valproate uptake was also measured in the presence of human, lamb, pig, rat, horse, goat, hamster, dog, and mouse sera. Higher brain uptakes were observed when the unbound fraction of drug increased. However, our data indicate that a fraction of the valproic acid entering the capillaries bound to plasma proteins had the capacity to equilibrate with brain because of enhanced drug dissociation from albumin in the brain microcirculation. Since plasma protein-bound valproate is available for uptake by brain, the major factor underlying the diminished distribution of the drug in brain appears to be the asymmetric transport properties of the BBB to valproic acid.