Fibrillar alpha-synuclein is a component of the Lewy body, the characteristic neuronal inclusion of the Parkinson's disease (PD) brain. Both alpha-synuclein mutations linked to autosomal dominant early-onset forms of PD promote the in vitro conversion of the natively unfolded protein into ordered prefibrillar oligomers, suggesting that these protofibrils, rather than the fibril itself, may induce cell death. We report here that protofibrils differ markedly from fibrils with respect to their interactions with synthetic membranes. Protofibrillar alpha-synuclein, in contrast to the monomeric and the fibrillar forms, binds synthetic vesicles very tightly via a beta-sheet-rich structure and transiently permeabilizes these vesicles. The destruction of vesicular membranes by protofibrillar alpha-synuclein was directly observed by atomic force microscopy. The possibility that the toxicity of alpha-synuclein fibrillization may derive from an oligomeric intermediate, rather than the fibril, has implications regarding the design of therapeutics for PD.