Cerebral energy metabolism is a highly compartmentalized and complex process in which transcellular trafficking of metabolites plays a pivotal role. Over the past decade, a role for lactate in fueling the energetic requirements of neurons has emerged. Furthermore, a neuroprotective effect of lactate during hypoglycemia or cerebral ischemia has been reported. The majority of the current evidence concerning lactate metabolism at the cellular level is based on in vitro data; only a few recent in vivo results have demonstrated that the brain preferentially utilizes lactate over glucose. Using voltage-sensitive dye (VSD) imaging, beta-probe measurements of radiotracer kinetics, and brain activation by sensory stimulation in the anesthetized rat, we investigated several aspects of cerebral lactate metabolism. The present study is the first in vivo demonstration of the maintenance of neuronal activity in the presence of lactate as the primary energy source. The loss of the voltage-sensitive dye signal found during severe insulin-induced hypoglycemia is completely prevented by lactate infusion. Thus, lactate has a direct neuroprotective effect. Furthermore, we demonstrate that the brain readily oxidizes lactate in an activity-dependent manner. The washout of 1-[C-11]L-lactate, reflecting cerebral lactate oxidation, was observed to increase during brain activation from 0.077 +/- 0.009 to 0.105 +/- 0.007 min(-1). Finally, our data confirm that the brain prefers lactate over glucose as an energy substrate when both substrates are available. Using [F-18]fluorodeoxyglucose(FDG) to measure the local cerebral metabolic rate of glucose, we demonstrated a lactate concentration-dependent reduction of cerebral glucose utilization during experimentally increased plasma lactate levels.