During physiological activity neurons may experience localised energy demands which require intracellular signals for stimulation of mitochondrial NADH generation and subsequent delivery of ATP. To elucidate these mechanisms, we applied microfluorimetric monitoring of cytoplasmic (Fluo-3) and mitochondrial (Rhod-2) calcium concentration ([Ca(2+)](c), [Ca(2+)](m)), as well as of mitochondrial oxidative metabolism (NAD(P)H), whilst simultaneously measuring changes in extracellular potassium concentration ([K(+)](o)), as an indicator of neuronal activity in hippocampal slice cultures. Changes in neuronal activity were induced by repetitive stimulation at different frequencies (5, 20, 100 Hz) and intensities. Stimulation parameters were chosen to elicit rises in [K(+)](o) of less than 3 mM which is comparable to physiologically occurring rises in [K(+)](o). The mitochondrial uncoupler carbonyl cyanide m-chlorophenyl hydrazone (CCCP) reduced stimulus-induced changes in Rhod-2 fluorescence by 79%, indicating that Rhod-2 signals were primarily of mitochondrial origin. Repetitive stimulation at 20 Hz applied to areas CA1 or CA3 resulted in moderate rises in [K(+)](o) which were associated with stimulus-dependent elevations in [Ca(2+)](c) and [Ca(2+)](m) of up to 15%. The same stimuli also elicited biphasic changes in NAD(P)H fluorescence characterised by an initial decline and a subsequent prolonged elevation of up to 10%. Variation of stimulus parameters revealed close correlations between rises in [K(+)](o), in [Ca(2+)](m) and changes in NAD(P)H fluorescence. To elucidate the role of intracellular Ca(2+) accumulation in induction of NAD(P)H fluorescence signals, the effect of application of Ca(2+)-free solution on these signals evoked by repetitive antidromic stimulation of the alveus during recordings in area CA1 was studied. Lowering extracellular Ca(2+) led to complete blockade of postsynaptic field potential components as well as of rises in [Ca(2+)](c) and [Ca(2+)](m). Amplitudes of NAD(P)H signals were reduced by 59%, though rises in [K(+)](o) were comparable in presence and absence of extracellular Ca(2+). The results suggest i) that mitochondrial oxidative metabolism is fine-tuned to graded physiological activity in neurons and ii) that rapid mitochondrial Ca(2+) signalling represents one of the main determinants for stimulation of oxidative metabolism under physiological conditions.