Previous work has shown that the dendritic spines of pyramidal neurons of the cerebral cortex are sensitive to a wide variety of environmental and surgical manipulations. The present study shows that the normal aging process also affects these spines. The spines were studied with the light microscope in Golgi preparations from rats ranging in age from 3 to 29.5 months. Visible spines were counted on either 25 or 53 mu segments of the basal dendrites, apical dendrites, oblique branches, and terminal tufts of layer V pyramidal cells in area 17. A progressive loss of spines occurred at each of these loci. The smallest observed spine loss (24%) occurred on the dendrites of the terminal tuft, and the largest (40%) on the oblique branches. Age-related spine loss appears to affect all animals, and for animals of any one age the overall loss is similar. However, the cell-to-cell variability within an individual animal is pronounced, some cells with high spine densities being present at every age examined. As a general rule, there is a positive relationship between visible spine density along the apical dendrite as it traverses layer IV and the thickness of the dendrite. With advancing age, the relatively thick dendrites decrease in number so that the thinner dendrites make up an increasingly larger proportion of the total apical dendrite population. Questions that remain for the future include the genesis of the spine loss, its relation to other aging changes, and its functional significance for the neuron.