In the central nervous system, choline is an essential precursor of choline-containing phospholipids in neurons and glial cells and of acetylcholine in cholinergic neurons. In order to study choline transport and metabolism in the brain, we developed a comprehensive methodical procedure for the analysis of choline and its major metabolites which involves a separation step, selective hydrolysis and subsequent determination of free choline by HPLC and electrochemical detection. In the present paper, we report the levels of choline, acetylcholine, phosphocholine, glycerophosphocholine and choline-containing phospholipids in brain tissue, cerebrospinal fluid and blood plasma of the untreated rat. The levels of free choline in blood plasma (11.4 microM), CSF (6.7 microM) and brain intracellular space (64.0 microM) were sufficiently similar to be compatible with an exchange of choline between these compartments. In contrast, the intracellular levels of glycerophosphocholine (1.15 mM) and phosphocholine (0.59 mM) in the brain were considerably higher than their CSF concentrations of 2.83 and 1.70 microM, respectively. In blood plasma, glycerophosphocholine was present in a concentration of 4.58 microM while phosphocholine levels were very low or absent (< 0.1 microM). The levels of phosphatidylcholine and lyso-phosphatidylcholine were high in blood plasma (1267 and 268 microM) but very low in cerebrospinal fluid (< 10 microM). We concluded that the transport of free choline is the only likely mechanism which contributes to the supply of choline to the brain under physiological conditions.