Calcium overload of neural cell mitochondria plays a key role in excitotoxic and ischemic brain injury. This study tested the hypothesis that brain mitochondria consist of subpopulations with differential sensitivity to calcium-induced inner membrane permeability transition, and that this sensitivity is greatly reduced by physiological levels of adenine nucleotides. Isolated non-synaptosomal rat brain mitochondria were incubated in a potassium-based medium in the absence or presence of ATP or ADP. Measurements were made of medium and intramitochondrial free calcium, light scattering, mitochondrial ultrastructure, and the elemental composition of electron-opaque deposits within mitochondria treated with calcium. In the absence of adenine nucleotides, calcium induced a partial decrease in light scattering, accompanied by three distinct ultrastructural morphologies, including large-amplitude swelling, matrix vacuolization and a normal appearance. In the presence of ATP or ADP the mitochondrial calcium uptake capacity was greatly enhanced and calcium induced an increase rather than a decrease in mitochondrial light scattering. Approximately 10% of the mitochondria appeared damaged and the rest contained electron-dense precipitates that contained calcium, as determined by electron-energy loss spectroscopy. These results indicate that brain mitochondria are heterogeneous in their response to calcium. In the absence of adenine nucleotides, approximately 20% of the mitochondrial population exhibit morphological alterations consistent with activation of the permeability transition, but less than 10% exhibit evidence of osmotic swelling and membrane disruption in the presence of ATP or ADP.