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Calcium is an extraordinarily versatile signaling ion, encoding cellular responses to a wide variety of external stimuli. In neurons, mitochondria can accumulate enormous amounts of calcium, with the consequence that mitochondrial calcium uptake, sequestration and release play pivotal roles in orchestrating calcium-dependent responses as diverse as gene transcription and cell death. In this review, we consider the basic chemistry of calcium as a ‘sticky’ cation, which leads to extremely high bound/free ratios, and discuss areas of current interest or controversy. Topics addressed include methodologies for measuring local intracellular calcium, mitochondrial calcium buffering and loading capacity, mitochondrially directed spatial calcium gradients, and the role of calcium overload-dependent mitochondrial dysfunction in glutamate-evoked excitotoxic injury and neurodegeneration. Finally, we consider the relationship between delayed calcium de-regulation, the mitochondrial permeability transition and the generation of reactive oxygen species, and propose a unified view of the ‘source specificity’ and ‘calcium overload’ models of N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptor-dependent excitotoxicity. Non-NMDA receptor mechanisms of excitotoxicity are discussed briefly.