The fluorescent dye, rhodamine 123, was used to evaluate the functional activity of the P-glycoprotein (P-gp) efflux transport system in primary cultured bovine brain microvessel endothelial cell (BBMEC) monolayers. Rhodamine 123 accumulation was increased significantly in BBMEC monolayers treated with the P-gp modifying agent, cyclosporin A (CSA). Rhodamine 123 accumulation was also increased by other P-gp modifying agents. The rank effectiveness of these agents in increasing rhodamine 123 accumulation in BBMEC monolayers was CSA = dipyridamole > verapamil = quinidine. The maximal increase in rhodamine 123 accumulation in CSA treated. BBMEC monolayers was approximately 3 fold greater than in control monolayers and was qualitatively similar to that observed with 3H-vincristine. Comparison of functional activity with the biochemical expression of P-gp in BBMEC monolayers and in an established tumor cell line that over-expresses P-gp indicate that functional activity may be a more descriptive measure of the importance of this drug efflux system than protein expression. Furthermore, these studies suggest that accumulation of rhodamine 123 in BBMEC monolayers can be used to quantitatively examine P-gp activity in the blood-brain barrier.