Both aging and sleep deprivation disturb the functions of the frontal lobes. Deficits in brain energy metabolism have been reported in these conditions. Neurons use not only glucose but also lactate as their energy substrate. The physiological response to elevated neuronal activity is a transient increase in lactate concentrations in the stimulated area. We have previously shown that cognitive stimulation increases brain lactate. To study the effect of prolonged wakefulness on the lactate response we designed an experiment to assess brain lactate levels during a 40-h sleep deprivation period in young (19-24 years old; n = 13) and in aged (60-68 years old; n = 12) healthy female volunteers. Brain lactate levels were assessed with proton MR-spectroscopy ((1)H MRS) during the performance of a silent word generation task. The (1)H MRS voxel location was individually selected, using functional magnetic resonance imaging, to cover the activated area in the left frontal lobe. The degree of sleepiness was verified using vigilance tests and self-rating scales. In the young alert subjects, the silent word generation test induced a 40% increase in lactate, but during the prolonged wakefulness period this response disappeared. In the aged subjects, the lactate response could not be detected even in the alert state. We propose that the absence of the lactate response may be a sign of malfunctioning of normal brain energy metabolism. The behavioral effects of prolonged wakefulness and aging may arise from this dysfunction.