The mechanism of unidirectional transport of glutamine from blood to brain in pentobarbital-anesthetized rats was examined using in situ perfusion. Amino acid uptake into brain across the blood-brain barrier (BBB) is classically thought to be via the Na-independent large neutral (L-system), acidic and basic amino acid transporters. In the presence of physiological concentrations of amino acids in the perfusate, which should saturate the known amino acid transporters at the BBB, the cortical transfer constant (Ki) for L-[14C]glutamine was 11.6 +/- 1.1 microl/g/min. The addition of either 10 mM 2-amino-2-norbornanecarboxylic acid or 10 mM 2-amino-2-norbornanecarboxylic acid and 5 mM cysteine had no effect on the cortical Ki for L-[14C]glutamine, indicating that glutamine transport under these conditions does not occur by the L-, A-, or ASC-systems. Decreasing perfusate Na from 140 to 2.4 mM by Tris substitution reduced the cortical Ki for L-[14C]glutamine by 62% (p < or = 0.001). The Na-dependent uptake has the characteristics of N-system transport. It was inhibited by L-histidine and L-glutamine, both N-system substrates, and it was pH sensitive and moderately tolerant of Li substitution for Na. This putative N-system transporter at the luminal membrane of the BBB plays an important role in mediating brain glutamine uptake.