The binding of the potent adenosine uptake inhibitor [3H]nitrobenzylthioinosine ([3H]NBI) to brain membrane fractions was investigated. Reversible, saturable, specific, high-affinity binding was demonstrated in both rat and human brain. The KD in both was 0.15 nM with Bmax values of 140-200 fmol/mg protein. Linear Scatchard plots were routinely obtained, indicating a homogeneous population of binding sites in brain. The highest density of binding sites was found in the caudate and hypothalamus in both species. The binding site was heat labile and trypsin sensitive. Binding was also decreased by incubation of the membranes in 0.05% Triton X-100 and by treatment with dithiothreitol and iodoacetamide. Of the numerous salt and metal ions tested, only copper and zinc had significant effects on [3H]NBI binding. The inhibitory potencies of copper and zinc were IC50 = 160 microM and 6 mM, respectively. Subcellular distribution studies revealed a high percentage of the [3H]NBI binding sites on synaptosomes, indicating that these sites were present in the synaptic region. A study of the tissue distribution of the [3H]NBI sites revealed very high densities of binding in erythrocyte, lung, and testis, with much lower binding densities in brain, kidney, liver, muscle, and heart. The binding affinity in the former group was approximately 1.5 nM, whereas that in the latter group was 0.15 nM, suggesting two types of binding sites. The pharmacologic profile of [3H]NBI binding was consistent with its function as the adenosine transport site, distinct from the adenosine receptor, since thiopurines were very potent inhibitors of binding whereas adenosine receptor ligands, such as cyclohexyladenosine and 2-chloroadenosine, were three to four orders of magnitude less potent. [3H]NBI binding in brain should provide a useful probe for the study of adenosine transport in the brain.