Arachidonic acid, a major polyunsaturated fatty acid of membrane phospholipids in the CNS, reduced the high-affinity uptake of glutamate and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in both rat brain cortical slices and synaptosomes. alpha-Aminoisobutyric acid uptake was not affected. Intrasynaptosomal sodium was increased concomitant with decreased (Na+ + K+)-ATPase activity in synaptosomal membranes. The reduction of GABA uptake in synaptosomes could be partially reversed by alpha-tocopherol. The inhibition of membrane-bound (Na+ + K+)-ATPase by arachidonic acid was not due to a simple detergent-like action on membranes, since sodium dodecyl sulfate stimulated the sodium pump activity in synaptosomes. These data indicate that arachidonic acid selectively modifies membrane stability and integrity associated with reductions of GABA and glutamate uptake and of (Na+ + K+)-ATPase activity.