Rat hippocampal slices were used to evaluate the effects of glucose deprivation and the ability of lactate or pyruvate to preserve histological integrity and synaptic function. Dark cell changes were observed during 180 min incubations in glucose-free solutions. These changes were blocked by substituting 10 mM lactate or pyruvate for glucose during the incubation. Excitatory postsynaptic potentials disappeared during 60 min of glucose deprivation but were restored by subsequent introduction of glucose, lactate or pyruvate. Incubation of slices with iodoacetate revealed a distinct pattern of damage that was blocked completely by pyruvate and partially by lactate. These results indicate that exogenous pyruvate and lactate can serve as energy substrates in the hippocampus when glucose is unavailable or glycolytic metabolism is impaired.