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Despite striking advances in functional brain imaging, the cellular and molecular mechanisms that underlie the signals detected by these techniques are still largely unknown. The basic physiological principle of functional imaging is represented by the tight coupling existing between neuronal activity and the associated local increase in both blood flow and energy metabolism. Positron emission tomography (PET) signals detect blood flow, oxygen consumption and glucose use associated with neuronal activity; the degree of blood oxygenation is currently thought to contribute to the signal detected with functional magnetic resonance imaging, while magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) identifies the spatio-temporal pattern of the activity-dependent appearance of certain metabolic intermediates such as glucose or lactate. Recent studies, including those of neurotransmitter-regulated metabolic fluxes in purified preparations and analyses of the cellular localization of enzymes and transporters involved in energy metabolism, as well as in vivo microdialysis and MRS approaches have identified the neurotransmitter glutamate and astrocytes, a specific type of glial cell, as pivotal elements in the coupling of synaptic activity with energy metabolism. Astrocytes are ideally positioned to sense increases in synaptic activity and to couple them with energy metabolism. Indeed they possess specialized processes that cover the surface of intraparenchymal capillaries, suggesting that astrocytes may be a likely site of prevalent glucose uptake. Other astrocyte processes are wrapped around synaptic contacts which possess receptors and reuptake sites for neurotransmitters. Glutamate stimulates glucose uptake into astrocytes. This effect is mediated by specific glutamate transporters present on these cells. The activity of these transporters, which is tightly coupled to the synaptic release of glutamate and operates the clearance of glutamate from the extracellular space, is driven by the electrochemical gradient of Na+. This Na(+)-dependent uptake of glutamate into astrocytes triggers a cascade of molecular events involving the Na+/K(+)-ATPase leading to the glycolytic processing of glucose and the release of lactate by astrocytes. The stoichiometry of this process is such that for one glutamate molecule taken up with three Na+ ions, one glucose molecule enters an astrocyte, two ATP molecules are produced through aerobic glycolysis and two lactate molecules are released. Within the astrocyte, one ATP molecule fuels one 'turn of the pump' while the other provides the energy needed to convert glutamate to glutamine by glutamine synthase. Evidence has been accumulated from structural as well as functional studies indicating that, under aerobic conditions, lactate may be the preferred energy substrate of activated neurons. Indeed, in the presence of oxygen, lactate is converted to pyruvate, which can be processed through the tricarboxylic acid cycle and the associated oxidative phosphorylation, to yield 17 ATP molecules per lactate molecule. These data suggest that during activation the brain may transiently resort to aerobic glycolysis occurring in astrocytes, followed by the oxidation of lactate by neurons. The proposed model provides a direct mechanism to couple synaptic activity with glucose use and is consistent with the notion that the signals detected during physiological activation with 18F-deoxyglucose (DG)-PET may reflect predominantly uptake of the tracer into astrocytes. This conclusion does not question the validity of the 2-DG-based techniques, rather it provides a cellular and molecular basis for these functional brain imaging techniques.