[show abstract][hide abstract] ABSTRACT: In neurons the rate of K(+)-uptake increases with increasing activity. K(+)-analogues like the heavy metal ion thallium (Tl(+)) can be used, therefore, as tracers for imaging neuronal activity. However, when water-soluble Tl(+)-salts are injected systemically only minute amounts of the tracer enter the brain and the Tl(+)-uptake patterns are influenced by regional differences in blood-brain barrier (BBB) K(+)-permeability. We here show that the BBB-related limitations in using Tl(+) for imaging neuronal activity are no longer present when the lipophilic Tl(+) chelate complex thallium diethyldithiocarbamate (TlDDC) is applied. We systemically injected rodents with TlDDC and mapped the Tl(+)-distribution in the brain using an autometallographic (AMG) technique, a histochemical method for detecting heavy metals. We find that Tl(+)-doses for optimum AMG staining could be substantially reduced, and regional differences attributable to differences in BBB K(+)-permeability were no longer detectable, indicating that TlDDC crosses the BBB. At the cellular level, however, the Tl(+)-distribution was essentially the same as after injection of water-soluble Tl(+)-salts, indicating Tl(+)-release from TlDDC prior to neuronal or glial uptake. Upon sensory stimulation or intracortical microstimulation neuronal Tl(+)-uptake increased after TlDDC injection, upon muscimol treatment neuronal Tl(+)-uptake decreased. We present a protocol for mapping neuronal activity with cellular resolution, which is based on intravenous TlDDC injections during ongoing activity in unrestrained behaving animals and short stimulation times of 5 min.