Synaptosomes, isolated from the whole brain of young (3 months) and old (24 months) rats were used to study the major bioenergetic systems of neuronal mitochondria in situ, within the synaptosome. Approximately 85% of the resting oxygen consumption of synaptosomes from both young and old rats was a result of proton leak (and possibly other ion cycling) across the mitochondrial inner membrane. There were no significant differences between synaptosomes from the young and old rats in the kinetic responses of the substrate oxidation system, the mitochondrial proton leak and the phosphorylation system to changes in the proton electrochemical gradient. Flux control coefficients of 0.71, 0.27 and 0.02 were calculated for substrate oxidation system, phosphorylation system and the proton leak, respectively, at maximal ATP producing capacity in synaptosomes from young animals. The corresponding values calculated for synaptosomes from old animals were 0.53, 0.43 and 0.05. Thus substrate oxidation had greatest control over oxygen consumption at maximal phosphorylating capacity for synaptosomes from whole brain, with proton leak, having little control under maximal ATP producing capacity. The uncoupled rate of oxygen consumption, in the presence of the mitochondrial uncoupler, carbonyl cyanide p-trifluoromethoxyphenylhydrazone (FCCP), was significantly lower (p = 0.0124) in synaptosomes from old rats (6.08 +/- 0.42, n = 11) when compared with those from the young rats (7.87 +/- 0.48, n = 8). Thus, there is an impaired flux through the substrate oxidation system is synaptosomes from old rats, as compared to synaptosomes from the young animals. These in situ results may have important implications for the interpretation of theories that age-dependent impairment of mitochondrial energy production may result in increased susceptibility to neurodegeneration.