Arachidonic acid is released rapidly from cellular membrane phospholipids after pathological insults associated with the delayed development of brain edema. Intracerebral injection of arachidonic acid caused significant increases in brain water and sodium content with decreases in potassium content and Na+,K+-ATPase activity. The 125I-labeled bovine serum albumin spaces in brain (a measure of blood-brain barrier permeability) rose threefold 24 h after arachidonic acid injection. There was gross and microscopic evidence of edema. Saturated fatty acids and monounsaturated fatty acids were not effective. These data indicate that the endothelial cells of the blood-brain barrier are target sites for the action of arachidonic acid. It is hypothesized that the increased permeability of endothelial cells to macromolecules and water results from alterations of membrane phospholipids and increased vesicular transport, changes that are responsible for the delayed development of vasogenic edema.