In the present study the effect of aging on the basal expression of three different immediate early genes (IEGs) was investigated. The protein products of c-fos, c-jun, and egr-1 genes were visualized immunohistochemically in the rat hippocampus of young adult (4-month-old) and old rats (20-month-old). Astrocytes were quantified by GFAp immunostaining to determine whether changes in the expression of IEGs were correlated with modifications in this marker of degenerative changes. In the young adult rat brain, basal levels of c-Jun and Egr-1 but not c-Fos were detected within the hippocampal formation. Whereas very high basal levels of c-Jun were found in the dentate granule cells and in the pyramidal cells of the ventral hippocampus, Egr-1 was highly expressed in the CA1 pyramidal cells of the dorsal hippocampus. Aging was accompanied by a decrease in Egr-1 expression, by a decrease in total cell density, as well as by a loss of astrocytes in CA1 subfields. In contrast, basal expression of c-Fos and c-Jun as well as astrocyte density within the dentate gyrus were not affected by aging. No difference in these markers was observed in aged rats with or without impairment in spatial learning in a water maze. It was concluded that although these changes may reflect senescence-induced decline of brain function, they do not constitute the defect underlying the age-associated reduction in mnesic capability.