Mitochondria are topologically closed bilayered systems where the synthesis of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) from adenosine diphosphate (ADP) and inorganic phosphate occurs via oxidative phosphorylation. The ordered architecture (and its extension) of the mitochondria (i.e. inner membrane, outer membrane and cristae) constitutes a critical topographic arrangement for their energy-providing mechanisms. Thus, quantitative estimations of the ultrastructural features of organelles preferentially stained by means of function-related cytochemical reactions reliably report on their potential to supply adequate amounts of ATP. On the basis of this rationale, we carried out a computer-assisted cytochemical study of cytochrome oxidase (COX) activity on mitochondria of different size in the cerebellar cortex of adult rats. The total intra-mitochondrial area of the cytochemical precipitates (CPA)/mitochondrion, the area (MA) and the longer diameter (F(max)) of COX-positive organelles were measured. The ratio (R): CPA/MA was also calculated and referred to as the percentage of mitochondrial inner membrane area involved in COX activity. The regression analysis of R vs MA showed a significant inverse correlation (r=-0.905). The fourfold increase in MA from quartiles I to IV was matched by increases in F(max) and CPA, respectively, but it was also related to a 25% decrease in R. By matching quantitative cytochemical estimations of COX activity within mitochondria with the morphometric assessment of their ultrastructural features, the present study correlates size to the metabolic competence of COX-positive organelles. Quantitative cytochemistry of COX activity is currently regarded as a reliable marker of cellular metabolism; thus our findings support the hypothesis that enlargements in size are inversely correlated with the mitochondrial metabolic competence.