In the present study, we investigated the changes in blood-brain barrier (BBB) permeability following brain endothelial cell exposure to different xenobiotics able to promote free radical generation during their metabolism. Our in vitro BBB model consisted of confluent monolayers of immortalized rat brain capillary endothelial cells (RBE4) grown on collagen-coated filters in the presence of C6 glioma cells grown in the lower compartment. We have recently shown that a range of xenobiotics, including menadione, nitrofurazone, and methylviologen (paraquat) may undergo monoelectronic redox cycling in isolated brain capillaries, giving rise to reactive oxygen species. In this study, addition of 100 microM menadione to the culture medium for 30 min significantly increased the permeability of endothelial cell monolayers to radiolabeled sucrose. The effect on endothelial permeability induced by menadione was dose-dependent and reversible. These permeability changes preceded the onset of cell death, as assessed by the Trypan blue exclusion method. Pre-incubation with superoxide dismutase and catalase blocked changes in sucrose permeability to control levels in a dose-dependent manner, suggesting the involvement of reactive oxygen species in menadione-induced BBB opening.