We tested the hypothesis that basal ganglia dysfunction in Parkinson's disease impairs the ability to quickly change set. The ability to change set was inferred by measuring the change in the amplitude of automatic gastrocnemius or tibialis anterior muscle responses in standing subjects: (1) when the direction of a surface perturbation changed from a backward translation to a toes up rotation; and (2) when subjects were instructed to 'give' or 'resist' while responding to the translations and rotations. In experiment 1, a change in sensorimotor set was assessed by the suppression of gastrocnemius responses to toes up rotations following a series of backward translations. Unlike healthy young and older subjects, Parkinson subjects did not change sensorimotor set immediately to the first rotation, but needed several rotations to change their responses. When required to alternate their responses between backward translations and toes up rotations, Parkinson subjects showed a smaller amplitude change in gastrocnemius responses. In experiment 2, Parkinson subjects had more difficulty in using cognitive set to modify their responses, especially when instructed to 'resist' the perturbations. A small number of healthy older subjects also had difficulties changing set quickly, but to a lesser extent than the Parkinson subjects. Levodopa medication did not improve the Parkinson subjects' ability to change set quickly. These results suggest that the basal ganglia, which are affected in Parkinson's disease, are critical neural substrates in the ability to change set quickly.