Effects of the intravenous anaesthetic ketamine on the desipramine-sensitive noradrenaline transporter (NAT) were examined in cultured bovine adrenal medullary cells and in transfected Xenopus laevis oocytes expressing the bovine NAT (bNAT). Incubation (1-3 h) of adrenal medullary cells with ketamine (10-300 microM) caused an increase in appearance of catecholamines in culture medium. Ketamine (10-1000 microM) inhibited desipramine-sensitive uptake of [3H]noradrenaline (NA) (IC50=97 microM). Saturation analysis showed that ketamine reduced Vmax of [3H]NA uptake without changing Km, indicating a non-competitive inhibition. Other inhibitors of NAT, namely cocaine and desipramine, showed a competitive inhibition of [3H]NA uptake while a derivative of ketamine, phencyclidine, showed a mixed type of inhibition. Ketamine (10-1000 microM) also inhibited the specific binding of [3H]desipramine to plasma membranes isolated from bovine adrenal medulla. Scatchard analysis of [3H]desipramine binding revealed that ketamine increased Kd without altering Bmax, indicating a competitive inhibition. In transfected Xenopus oocytes expressing the bNAT, ketamine attenuated [3H]NA uptake with a kinetic characteristic similar to that of cultured adrenal medullary cells. These findings are compatible with the idea that ketamine non-competitively inhibits the transport of NA by interacting with a site which partly overlaps the desipramine binding site on the NAT.