The involvement of phospholipase A2 (PLA2) and fatty acid release in the regulation of sodium-dependent high-affinity choline uptake in rat brain was assessed in vitro through the use of the specific binding of 3H-hemicholinium-3 (3H-HCh-3). Addition of arachidonic acid and other unsaturated fatty acids to rat striatal membranes in vitro resulted in a dose-dependent, temperature-independent activation of 3H-HCh-3 binding. Scatchard analysis revealed that these changes in binding result from a 2-fold increase in the affinity and capacity of 3H-HCh-3 binding. Saturated fatty acids, lysophospholipids, and phospholipids did not affect specific 3H-HCh-3 binding. Addition of defatted BSA to membranes, which had been treated previously with arachidonic acid, completely reversed the increase in specific 3H-HCh-3 binding. However, several inhibitors of fatty acid metabolism, including nordihydroguaiaretic acid, indomethacin, catalase, and superoxide dismutase, did not alter arachidonic acid-induced changes in 3H-HCh-3 binding, suggesting that unsaturated fatty acids, and not their metabolites, are directly responsible for the observed activation of specific 3H-HCh-3 binding. Additionally, unsaturated fatty acids dose- dependently inhibited high-affinity 3H-choline uptake in rat striatal synaptosomes, apparently due to the disruption of synaptosomal integrity. The phospholipase A2 inhibitors quinacrine hydrochloride, trifluoperazine, and 4-bromophenacylbromide dose-dependently inhibited potassium depolarization-induced activation of specific 3H-HCh-3 binding in slices of rat brain in vitro. Similarly, both quinacrine and trifluoperazine inhibited the metabolism of phospholipids and the release of fatty acids evoked by either elevated KCl or calcium ionophore A23187. These results support the involvement of PLA2 and subsequent fatty acid release in the increase of 3H-HCh-3 binding in cholinergic neurons and suggest that activation of PLA2 may be the penultimate step in regulating the velocity of sodium-dependent choline transport.