The central hypothesis of the study which has been carried out as part of the NRP38 program, is that perturbations of brain energy metabolism are critically involved in the neurodegeneration occurring in Alzheimer's disease (AD) and that they may correlate with early cognitive dysfunctioning. In the present multidisciplinary study we set out to monitor brain energy metabolism using FDG-PET and HMPAO-SPECT imaging in a cohort of individuals over 65 years of age, drawn from the general population. HMPAO-SPECT imaging, which is a simpler and more widely accessible imaging procedure than FDG-PET, was performed under basal conditions and during the performance of a cognitive task (verbal fluency test). Three groups were studied. Two groups (groups I and II) included individuals age 65 or more, with no cognitive impairment and carrying an APOE4 positive or APOE4 negative phenotype, respectively; a third group (group III) included patients with clinical signs of AD. Each subject entering the study underwent an FDG-PET, an HMPAO-SPECT and an extensive battery of neuropsychological tests which assess various aspects of cognitive functioning, with a strong emphasis on working memory, divided attention and executive functions. A total of 101 participants were submitted to brain imaging and neuropsychological testing. Among these, 60 participants received the same set of imaging and neuropsychological tasks 24-36 months after the first set (phase II). In this article, we present a preliminary analysis performed on ten subjects from groups I and II and nine subjects from group III: activation (verbal fluency task) induced a specific pattern of increase in HMPAO retention (including BA 9/10, BA 18 bilaterally and right BA 17). In contrast to controls, in nine AD subjects no significant differences in HMPAO retention were observed when comparing activation and basal conditions. The cellular and molecular mechanisms that underlie the retention of HMPAO, the tracer used for single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) imaging, has been studied in vitro in purified preparations of neurons and astrocytes with the aim of investigating the contribution of different cell types to hexamethyl-propyleneamineoxime labeled with technetium-99m (99mTc-HMPAO) retention in vitro. Results show that 99mTc-HMPAO retention predominates in astrocytes over neurons by a factor of approximately 2.5. Diethyl maleate, ethacrynic acid and buthionine sulfoximine, three agents which significantly reduce glutathione levels, also decreased 99mTc-HMPAO retention in both astrocytes and in neurons. Decrease did not always correlate with glutathione levels however, thus suggesting that other factors could be involved. The data presented indicate that astrocytes might constitute a prominent site of 99mTc-HMPAO retention and most likely contribute significantly to the SPECT signal. In addition, they also suggest that specific alterations in glial cell metabolism could explain flow-independent changes in 99mTc-HMPAO retention in the brain as observed by SPECT in certain pathologies (including Alzheimer's disease). In particular, these observations suggest a key role of astrocytes in the signal detected with the imaging procedure, which is altered in the Alzheimer's cohort subjected to the verbal fluency activation task.