We examined regional differences in the activity of a mitochondrial respiratory enzyme, succinic dehydrogenase (SDH), in the hippocampi of normal and postischemic gerbils, using a quantitative imaging method. Gerbils (n = 21) without ischemia, and gerbils which had experienced 5 min of bilateral common carotid artery occlusion 12 h or 2 days previously, were sacrificed. Coronal sections of the brains were prepared for quantitative imaging of SDH activity and histological examination. In the control gerbils, SDH activity in the pyramidal cell layer of the CA 1 sector (Sommer's sector) was 106.3 +/- 10.3% (mean +/- SD; SDH activity as a percentage of the cerebellar SDH activity), which was lower than in the other subfields of the hippocampus. SDH activity in the oriens layer, stratum radiatum and lacunosum molecular layer of the CA 1 sector was lower than in the corresponding layers of the CA 2 and CA 3 sectors. After transient ischemia, SDH activity remained unchanged in the CA 1 sector. Histologically, selective neuronal necrosis was observed in the pyramidal cell layer of the CA 1 sector 2 days after ischemia. The observed low level of this mitochondrial respiratory enzyme in the pyramidal cell layer of the CA 1 sector should be taken into account as a possible trigger of the selective vulnerability of the region to ischemia.