Digital-imaging microfluorimetry of the oxidation of hydroethidine (HEt) to ethidium can be used to monitor superoxide (O2-) production selectively within individual rat hippocampal pyramidal neurons in culture and in brain slices. Under assay conditions, oxidation was not accomplished by hydroxyl radical, singlet O2, H2O2, or nitrogen radicals. Neuronal O2- production varied with metabolic activity and age. O2- generation increased after treatment with AMPA, kainic acid, and NMDA, and the mitochondrial uncoupler carbonylcyanide p- (trifluoromethoxy)phenyl hydrazone, but usually not after depolarization (50 mM K+). O2- concentrations were sensitive to scavengers and nitric oxide. HEt oxidation was higher in Ca(2+)- containing versus Ca(2+)-free saline. However, Ca2+ ionophores did not increase oxidation greatly. H2O2 application produced a secondary increase in O2-. The major source of O2- under basal and stimulated conditions appeared to be the mitochondria. Consistent with this, ethidium staining in dendrites was punctate, colocalized with mitochondria, and blocked by CN-.