Respiratory chain dysfunction has been identified in several neurodegenerative disorders. In Friedreich's ataxia (FA) and Huntington's disease (HD), where the respective mutations are in nuclear genes encoding non-respiratory chain mitochondrial proteins, the defects in oxidative phosphorylation are clearly secondary. In Parkinson's disease (PD) the situation is less clear, with some evidence for a primary role of mitochondrial DNA in at least a proportion of patients. The pattern of the respiratory chain defect may provide some clue to its cause; in PD there appears to be a selective complex I deficiency; in HD and FA the deficiencies are most severe in complex II/III with a less severe defect in complex IV. Aconitase activity in HD and FA is severely decreased in brain and muscle, respectively, but appears to be normal in PD brain. Free radical generation is thought to be of importance in both HD and FA, via excitotoxicity in HD and abnormal iron handling in FA. The oxidative damage observed in PD may be secondary to the mitochondrial defect. Whatever the cause(s) and sequence of events, respiratory chain deficiencies appear to play an important role in the pathogenesis of neurodegeneration. The mitochondrial abnormalities induced may converge on the function of the mitochondrion in apoptosis. This mode of cell death is thought to play an important role in neurodegenerative diseases and it is tempting to speculate that the observed mitochondrial defects in PD, HD and FA result directly in apoptotic cell death, or in the lowering of a cell's threshold to undergo apoptosis. Clarifying the role of mitochondria in pathogenesis may provide opportunities for the development of treatments designed to reverse or prevent neurodegeneration.