Cellular expression of cytochrome oxidase subunit I (COI) mRNA has recently been used as a metabolic marker for neuronal activity to study the functional changes in the subthalamic nucleus (STN) in parkinsonism. The previous experimental studies have been performed when the pathological state was stabilized at a maximal level. In order to determine the evolution of changes in neuronal activity in the STN after nigrostriatal denervation, we analysed by in situ hybridization the cellular expression of COI mRNA in the subthalamic neurons at different times, from 6 h to 14 days, after unilateral intranigral microinjection of 6-hydroxydopamine (6-OHDA) in rats. In parallel, the time-dependent changes of the unit neuronal activity of subthalamic neurons have been recorded. Levels of COI mRNA increased by 41% in subthalamic neurons from 24 h after 6-OHDA intoxication, to 14 days (+26%). Similarly, electrical activity started to increase slightly 24 h after lesion (+20%) and remained significantly higher at 14 days after the lesion (+189%). Changes in neuronal mean discharge rate were associated with changes in the pattern of spiking activity, from a regular firing pattern to an irregular one with a high bursting activity. These results show that: (i) the hyperactivity of the STN represents a very early phenomenon in the physiopathology of parkinsonian syndromes; and (ii) that changes in COI mRNA expression slightly precede changes in electrical neuronal activity.