Free radicals and other so-called 'reactive species' are constantly produced in the brain in vivo. Some arise by 'accidents of chemistry', an example of which may be the leakage of electrons from the mitochondrial electron transport chain to generate superoxide radical (O2*-). Others are generated for useful purposes, such as the role of nitric oxide in neurotransmission and the production of O2*- by activated microglia. Because of its high ATP demand, the brain consumes O2 rapidly, and is thus susceptible to interference with mitochondrial function, which can in turn lead to increased O2*- formation. The brain contains multiple antioxidant defences, of which the mitochondrial manganese-containing superoxide dismutase and reduced glutathione seem especially important. Iron is a powerful promoter of free radical damage, able to catalyse generation of highly reactive hydroxyl, alkoxyl and peroxyl radicals from hydrogen peroxide and lipid peroxides, respectively. Although most iron in the brain is stored in ferritin, 'catalytic' iron is readily mobilised from injured brain tissue. Increased levels of oxidative damage to DNA, lipids and proteins have been detected by a range of assays in post-mortem tissues from patients with Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and at least some of these changes may occur early in disease progression. The accumulation and precipitation of proteins that occur in these diseases may be aggravated by oxidative damage, and may in turn cause more oxidative damage by interfering with the function of the proteasome. Indeed, it has been shown that proteasomal inhibition increases levels of oxidative damage not only to proteins but also to other biomolecules. Hence, there are many attempts to develop antioxidants that can cross the blood-brain barrier and decrease oxidative damage. Natural antioxidants such as vitamin E (tocopherol), carotenoids and flavonoids do not readily enter the brain in the adult, and the lazaroid antioxidant tirilazad (U-74006F) appears to localise in the blood-brain barrier. Other antioxidants under development include modified spin traps and low molecular mass scavengers of O2*-. One possible source of lead compounds is the use of traditional remedies claimed to improve brain function. Little is known about the impact of dietary antioxidants upon the development and progression of neurodegenerative diseases, especially Alzheimer's disease. Several agents already in therapeutic use might exert some of their effects by antioxidant action, including selegiline (deprenyl), apomorphine and nitecapone.