The intracranial distribution of [14C]sucrose, an extracellular marker infused for 30 s into one lateral ventricle, was determined by autoradiography of frozen-dried brain sections. Within 3.5 min [14C]sucrose appeared in: (i) the third ventricle, including optic, infundibular and mammillary recesses; (ii) the aqueduct of Sylvius; (iii) the velum interpositum, a part of the subarachnoid space that runs along the roof of the third ventricle and contains many blood vessels; (iv) the mesencephalic and fourth ventricles; and (v) the superior medullary velum, a highly vascular extension of the subarachnoid space that terminates at the walls of the mesencephalic and fourth ventricles. Within 5 min, radioactivity was present in the interpeduncular, ambient and quadrigeminal cisterns, which encircle the midbrain. By 10 min, approximately 11% of the radioactivity had passed into the subarachnoid space via a previously undescribed flow pathway that included the velum interpositum and superior medullary velum. At many places along the ventricular system, [14C]sucrose appeared to move from cerebrospinal fluid into the adjacent tissue by simple diffusion, as reported previously (Blasberg R. G. et al. (1974) J. Pharmac. exp. Ther. 195, 73-83; Levin V. A. et al. (1970) Am. J. Physiol. 219, 1528-1533; Patlak C. and Fenstermacher J.D. (1975) Am. J. Physiol. 229, 877-884; Rosenberg G. A. and Kyner W.T. (1980) Brain Res. 193, 56-66; Rosenberg G. A. et al. (1986) Am. J. Physiol 251, F485-F489). Little sucrose was, however, taken up by: (i) circumventricular organs such as the subfornical organ; (ii) medullary and cerebellar tissue next to the lateral recesses; and (iii) the superior and inferior colliculi and cerebral peduncles. For the latter two groups of structures, entry from cerebrospinal fluid was apparently blocked by a thick, multilayered glia limitans. Although [14C]sucrose was virtually absent from the rest of the subarachnoid system after 1 h, it remained in the perivascular spaces and/or walls of pial arteries and arterioles for more than 3 h. Certain transport proteins, protease inhibitors, growth factors and other neurobiologically active materials are present in cerebrospinal fluid, and their distribution to the brain and its blood vessels may be important. The present work shows, in the rat, that the flow of cerebrospinal fluid and the disposition of its constituents is fairly complex and differs among regions. Flow was rapid throughout the ventricular system and into various subarachnoid velae and cisterns, but was surprisingly slow and slight over the cerebral and cerebellar cortices. The cerebrospinal fluid-to-tissue flux of material was relatively free at many interfaces, but was greatly restricted at others, the latter indicating that the old concept of a "cerebrospinal fluid-brain barrier" may hold at such places. Finally, radiolabeled sucrose was retained longer within the walls and perivascular spaces of pial arteries and arterioles than in other subarachnoid tissues; one function of the cerebrospinal fluid system or "third circulation" may thus be delivering factors and agents to these pial blood vessels.