Transient cerebral ischemia causes an inhomogeneous pattern of cell death in the brain. We investigated mechanisms, which may underlie the greater susceptibility of hippocampal CA1 vs. CA3 pyramidal cells to ischemic insult. Using an in vitro oxygen–glucose deprivation (OGD) model of ischemia, we found that N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) responses were enhanced in the more susceptible CA1 pyramidal cells and transiently depressed in the resistant CA3 pyramidal cells. The long-lasting potentiation of NMDA responses in CA1 cells was associated with delayed cell death and was prevented by blocking tyrosine kinase-dependent up-regulation of NMDA receptor function. In CA3 cells, the energy deprivation-induced transient depression of NMDA responses was converted to potentiation by blocking protein phosphatase signalling. These results suggest that energy deprivation differentially shifts the intracellular equilibrium between the tyrosine kinase and phosphatase activities that modulate NMDA responses in CA1 and CA3 pyramidal cells. Therapeutic modulation of tyrosine phosphorylation may thus prove beneficial in mitigating ischemia-induced neuronal death in vulnerable brain areas.