The calcium content of synapses of parallel fibers on Purkinje cell dendritic spines was determined by electron probe x-ray microanalysis of freeze-dried cryosections from directly frozen slices of mouse cerebellar cortex. In fresh slices frozen within 20-30 sec of excision, calcium concentrations ranging from 0.8 to 18.6 mmol/kg of dry weight were measured in cisterns of smooth endoplasmic reticulum within Purkinje cell dendritic spines. The average calcium content of spine cisterns in rapidly excised slices (6.7 +/- 0.6 mmol/kg of dry weight +/- SEM) was higher than the average calcium content of spine cisterns in brain slices incubated without stimulation for 1-2 hr before direct freezing (2.5 +/- 0.4 mmol/kg of dry weight). Depolarization of incubated cerebellar slices by isotonic 55 mM KCl resulted in the accumulation within spine cisterns of very high amounts of calcium or isotonically substituted strontium, both derived from the extracellular fluid. These results suggest that one function of spine cisterns is to sequester free calcium that enters the spine through ligand-gated or voltage-gated channels during synaptic transmission.