Loss of noradrenergic locus coeruleus (LC) neurons is a prominent feature of aging–related neurodegenerative diseases, like Parkinson’s disease (PD). The basis of this vulnerability is not understood. To explore possible physiological determinants, LC neurons were studied using electrophysiological and optical approaches in ex vivo mouse brain slices. These studies revealed that autonomous activity in LC neurons was accompanied by oscillations in dendritic Ca 2+ concentration attributable to opening of L–type Ca 2+ channels. This oscillation elevated mitochondrial oxidant stress and was attenuated by inhibition of nitric oxide synthase. The relationship between activity and stress was malleable, as arousal and carbon dioxide, each increased the spike rate, but differentially affected mitochondrial oxidant stress. Oxidant stress also was increased in an animal model of PD. Thus, our results point to activity–dependent Ca 2+ entry and a resulting mitochondrial oxidant stress as factors contributing to the vulnerability of LC neurons.