The total numbers of neurons in five subdivisions of human hippocampi were estimated using unbiased stereological principles and systematic sampling techniques. The method addresses the problems associated with the results and conclusions of previous quantitative studies, virtually all of which have been based on biased estimates of neuron densities. For each subdivision, the total number of neurons was calculated as the product of the estimate of the volume of the neuron-containing layers and the estimate of the numerical density of neurons in the layers. Each hippocampus was cut into 3-mm-thick slabs, transverse to the rostrocaudal axis. One 70-micron-thick section from each slab was used in the analysis. The volumes of the layers containing neurons in five major subdivisions of the hippocampus (granule cell layer, hilus, CA3-2, CA1, and subiculum) were estimated with point-counting techniques after delineation of the layers on each section. The numerical densities of neurons in each subdivision were estimated on the same sections with optical disectors. The sampling used in both estimates was performed systematically in all three dimensions. In an example of five hippocampi, the mean numbers of neurons (CV = SD/mean) in the different subdivisions were as follows: granule cells 15 X 10(6) (0.28), hilus 2.0 X 10(6) (0.16), CA3-2 2.7 X 10(6) (0.22), CA1 16 X 10(6) (0.32), subiculum 4.5 X 10(6) (0.19). The stereological measurements contributed approximately 25% of the observed variance. Among the five subjects there was a significant inverse relationship between age (which ranged from 47 to 85 years) and the total number of neurons in CA1 (which ranged from 24 to 11 X 10(6)). An optimized sampling scheme for studies of the number of neurons in the human hippocampus has been designed on the basis of an analysis of variance of the estimates at different levels of the sampling scheme. Counting neurons in the five subdivisions of the human hippocampus with the optimized sampling scheme takes less than 4 hours.