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Monoamine transporters, the molecular targets for drugs of abuse and antidepressants, clear norepinephrine, dopamine, or serotonin from the synaptic cleft. Neurotransmitters, amphetamines, and neurotoxins bind before being transported, whereas cocaine and antidepressants bind to block transport. Although binding is crucial to transport, few assays separate binding from transport, nor do they provide adequate temporal or spatial resolution to describe real-time kinetics or localize sites of active uptake. Here, we report a new method that distinguishes substrate binding from substrate transport using single-cell, space-resolved, real-time fluorescence microscopy. For these studies we use a fluorescent analogue of 1-methyl-4-phenylpyridinium, a neurotoxic metabolite and known substrate of monoamine transporters, to assess binding and transport with 50-ms, sub-micron resolution. We show that ASP(+) (4-(4-(dimethylamino)styrl)-N-methylpyridinium) has micromolar potency for the human norepinephrine transporter, that ASP(+) accumulation is Na(+)-, Cl(-)-, cocaine-, and desipramine-sensitive and temperature-dependent, and that ASP(+) competes with norepinephrine uptake. Using this method we demonstrate that norepinephrine transporters are efficient buffers for substrate, with binding rates exceeding transport rates by 100-fold. Furthermore, substrates bind deep within the transporter, isolated from both the bath and the lipid bilayer. Although transport per se depends on Na(+) and Cl(-), binding is independent of Na(+) and actually increases in low Cl(-). We further demonstrate that ASP(+) interacts with transporters not only in transfected cells but in cultured neurons. ASP(+) is also a substrate for dopamine and serotonin transporters and therefore represents a powerful new technique for studying the biophysical properties of monoamine transporters, an approach also amenable to high throughput assays for drug discovery.