In experimental diabetic neuropathy, defective arachidonic acid metabolism characterized by a decrease in the proportion of glycerophospholipid arachidonoyl-containing molecular species (ACMS) occurs and has been implicated in the pathogenesis of the disorder. In this study, we evaluated the suitability of a tumor-derived human Schwann cell line (NF1T) as a model to investigate the mechanism underlying the loss of ACMS. NF1T cells grown in 30 versus 5.5 mM glucose undergo a marked reduction in ACMS in phosphatidylcholine, phosphatidylethanolamine, and phosphatidylinositol, in a manner resembling that of diabetic nerve. The depletion of ACMS can be reversed on transferring the cells from 30 mM glucose to medium containing physiological levels of glucose. Cells maintained in 5.5 mM glucose plus 25 mM mannitol or sorbitol did not exhibit decreased ACMS levels, indicating that osmotic effects were not responsible for ACMS depletion. However, growth in 25 mM fructose elicited a reduction of ACMS similar to that produced by 30 mM glucose. Excessive glucose flux through the polyol pathway has been implicated in the neural and vascular abnormalities associated with diabetes. Therefore, we examined the effects of polyol pathway inhibitors, including two aldose reductase inhibitors, zopolrestat and sorbinil, and a sorbitol dehydrogenase inhibitor (SDI), CP166,572, on ACMS levels in NF1T cells cultured in elevated glucose concentrations. At 200 microM, zopolrestat fully and sorbinil partially corrected ACMS depletion. The SDI at concentrations up to 100 microM failed to affect diminished ACMS levels. Neither zopolrestat nor the SDI restored ACMS levels reduced in the presence of elevated fructose concentrations. These findings suggest that enhanced flux through the polyol pathway and, in particular, elevated aldose reductase activity may play a significant role in the reduction of ACMS levels in the cells brought about by elevated glucose levels.