The N-methyl-d-aspartate (NMDA) receptor/nitric oxide synthase/guanylate cyclase pathway was studied during aging by monitoring extracellular cGMP in the rat hippocampus and cerebellum during in vivo microdialysis. In the hippocampus the basal cGMP efflux decreased by 50% from 3 to 12 months of age, whereas it remained constant with age in the cerebellum. Locally perfused NMDA (1 mM) evoked remarkable cGMP responses in 3-month-old rats; in the hippocampus the cGMP production was already dramatically reduced at 12 months, whereas in the cerebellum a similar impairment occurred much later (24 months). The nitric oxide donor S-nitroso-N-penicillamine (1 mM) elicited cGMP responses which slightly decreased from 3 to 12–24 months in the hippocampus, while no significant decrement with age could be seen in the cerebellum. Local perfusion of the phosphodiesterase inhibitor 3-isobutyl-1 methylxanthine (IBMX, 1 mM) produced large increases in hippocampal cGMP levels. The response decreased at 12 and 24 months, apparently in parallel with the fall in the basal level of cGMP. No significant differences across ages were observed following IBMX infusion in the cerebellum. The decreases in basal outflow and in the NMDA-evoked cGMP response seen in the aged hippocampus were not compensated for by supplying l-arginine. Infusion of d-serine (1 mM) enhanced (150–200%) extracellular cGMP in the cerebellum with no age-related differences. The activity in vitro, of hippocampal nitric oxide synthase at 24 months was 33% lower than at 3 months, whereas the cerebellar enzyme did not show any age-related decay. Aging seems therefore to affect differentially the NMDA receptor/nitric oxide synthase/cGMP pathway in the rat hippocampus versus the cerebellum. In the hippocampus the early fall in the NMDA-evoked cGMP response seems to originate from deficits in NMDA receptor function and nitric oxide synthase and guanylate cyclase activities; in the cerebellum, the decreased response to NMDA in the old animals seems essentially to be due to impairment of NMDA receptor function.