There is evidence that dietary lipids and age both influence neuronal membrane composition and receptor G protein-linked signal transduction, but very little information is available on the interaction between these two factors. To investigate this, we obtained striata from 2, 12, and 22-month-old male F344 rats who were fed either a high-cholesterol, high-saturated fat or low-fat diet for 1 month. The striata were assayed for muscarinic agonist-stimulated low-Km GTPase activity using 10(-3) M carbachol and 10(-5) M oxotremorine and for KCl-evoked dopamine release enhancement by 10(-5) M oxotremorine. Membrane cholesterol and phospholipid content and phospholipid class composition were also determined. Mature animals showed significant but divergent changes in GTPase activity and dopamine release for high-cholesterol and low-fat diets: GTPase activity decreased, whereas dopamine release increased in these groups. Alterations in GTPase activity but not in dopamine release were inversely correlated with the cholesterol/phospholipid molar ratio. Old control animals showed reductions in both GTPase activity and oxotremorine-enhanced dopamine release compared with young animals. Whereas none of the experimental diets affected GTPase activity in old animals, the low-fat diet produced a marked decrease in dopamine release. In contrast to mature and old groups, young rats showed no significant change in either GTPase or dopamine release, suggesting a relative "resistance" to such dietary lipid modulation. The observed dissociation in GTPase and dopamine release responses to diet may reflect differing effects of these diets on discrete membrane lipid domains that preferentially influence different signal transduction components. The substantial age-related differences in striatal membrane response to dietary lipid modulation may represent the effects of underlying age differences in membrane lipid metabolism, structure, and/or dynamics. Our findings support the work of other groups that have shown that brain membranes are susceptible to modification by exogenous lipids. They also suggest the need for a more systematic examination of the influence of age on the response to other types of dietary lipid changes.