Recently discovered serotonin3 (5-HT3) receptor antagonists are potent antiemetics in cytotoxic drug-induced vomiting. The specific site where 5-HT3 receptor antagonists act to abolish emesis is controversial. The major objective of this study was to determine whether the antiemetic effect of 5-HT3 receptor antagonists is exerted in the brain areas that reside inside or outside of the blood-brain barrier. Tropisetron, zatosetron (LY277359 maleate) and its quaternary analog zatosetron-QUAT were used in this study. Zatosetron and zatosetron-QUAT showed high affinity and selectivity for 5-HT3 receptors in radioligand binding studies. Both compounds antagonized 5-HT-induced bradycardia in rats with an approximate ID50 of 0.7 and 0.2 microgram/kg i.v., respectively. Zatosetron and tropisetron significantly inhibited cisplatin-evoked emesis in dogs (estimated ID50 values of 34.4 +/- 2.3 micrograms/kg and 108.3 +/- 4.8 micrograms/kg i.v., respectively). Zatosetron-QUAT (0.01-1.0 mg/kg i.v.) had no effect. [14C]-zatosetron-QUAT (100 micrograms/kg) was not detected in the brain after i.v. administration to rats, consistent with the inability of charged compounds to achieve significant brain concentrations. However, i.c.v. administration (100 ng/kg) of zatosetron-QUAT reduced emetic episodes significantly (11.6 +/- 1.6 vs. 2.8 +/- 1.2). These studies suggest that, in dogs, antagonism of 5-HT3 receptors located within the blood-brain barrier is important to block cisplatin-induced emesis.