The loss of dopaminergic neurones in the substantia nigra with Parkinson's disease may result from inflammation-induced proliferation of microglia and reactive macrophages expressing inducible nitric oxide synthase (iNOS). We have investigated the effects of the supranigral administration of lipopolysaccharide on iNOS-immunoreactivity, 3-nitrotyrosine formation and tyrosine hydroxylase-immunoreactive neuronal number, and retrogradely labelled fluorogold-positive neurones in the ventral mesencephalon in male Wistar rats. Following supranigral lipopolysaccharide injection, 16-18 h previously, there was intense expression of NADPH-diaphorase and iNOS-immunoreactivity in non-neuronal, macrophage-like cells. This was accompanied by intense expression of glial fibrillary acidic protein-immunoreactive astrocytosis in the substantia nigra. There were also significant reductions in the number of tyrosine hydroxylase(50-60%)- and fluorogold (65-75%)-positive neurones in the substantia nigra. In contrast, tyrosine hydroxylase-immunoreactivity in the ventral tegmental area was not altered. Pre-treatment of animals with the iNOS inhibitor, S-methylisothiourea (10 mg kg(-1), i.p.), led to a significant reduction of lipopolysaccharide-induced cell death. Similar reduction of tyrosine hydroxylase-immunoreactivity and fluorogold-labelled neurones in the substantia nigra following lipopolysaccharide administration suggests dopaminergic cell death rather than down-regulation of tyrosine hydroxylase. We conclude that the expression of iNOS- and 3-nitrotyrosine-immunoreactivity and reduction of cell death by S-methylisothiourea suggest the effects of lipopolysaccharide may be nitric oxide-mediated, although other actions of lipopolysaccharide (independent of iNOS induction) cannot be ruled out.