Disrupted energy metabolism, in particular reduced activity of cytochrome oxidase (EC 220.127.116.11), alpha-ketoglutarate dehydrogenase (EC 18.104.22.168) and pyruvate dehydrogenase (EC 22.214.171.124) have been reported in post-mortem Alzheimer's disease brain. beta-Amyloid is strongly implicated in Alzheimer's pathology and can be formed intracellularly in neurones. We have investigated the possibility that beta-amyloid itself disrupts mitochondrial function. Isolated rat brain mitochondria have been incubated with the beta-amyloid alone or together with nitric oxide, which is known to be elevated in Alzheimer's brain. Mitochondrial respiration, electron transport chain complex activities, alpha-ketoglutarate dehydrogenase activity and pyruvate dehydrogenase activity have been measured. Beta-amyloid caused a significant reduction in state 3 and state 4 mitochondrial respiration that was further diminished by the addition of nitric oxide. Cytochrome oxidase, alpha-ketoglutarate dehydrogenase and pyruvate dehydrogenase activities were inhibited by beta-amyloid. The K(m) of cytochrome oxidase for reduced cytochrome c was raised by beta-amyloid. We conclude that beta-amyloid can directly disrupt mitochondrial function, inhibits key enzymes and may contribute to the deficiency of energy metabolism seen in Alzheimer's disease.