Computer imaging and immunohistochemical staining techniques were used to determine which midbrain dopaminergic (DA) cells are spared in Parkinson's disease (PD), and in animals treated with the DA neurotoxin 1-methyl-4-phenyl-1,2,3,6-tetrahydropyridine (MPTP), and whether the spared cells contain the calcium-binding protein, calbindin-D28k (CaBP). The PD patients had more than 55% fewer midbrain DA neurons than age-matched normal subjects. The cell loss occurred within the combined substantia nigra and retrorubral area (greater than 61%; DA nuclei A9 and A8, respectively), and the ventral tegmental area (greater than 42%; DA nucleus A10). The cell loss was greatest within the ventral portion of the nucleus A9. A similar pattern of DA cell loss was observed in MPTP-treated Macaca fascicularis monkeys. The CaBP-containing cells were located specifically in the cell regions spared by PD and by MPTP-treatment in both monkeys and C57BL/6 mice. These data suggest that PD and MPTP both destroy the same population of midbrain DA neurons within nuclei A8, A9, and A10, and that perhaps CaBP protects the DA neurons from cell death caused by both PD and MPTP.