Ultrastructural and biochemical properties of caudate nucleus (CN) biopsies in two patients with advanced Parkinson's disease (PD) were compared with three CN specimens removed during surgery for intracranial tumors. An additional two specimens from neurologically intact patients (59 and 86 years old) were removed during autopsy (performed 3 and 4 h post mortem, respectively) for electron microscopic studies. Dopamine levels in PD were reduced to less than 15% of control values. Both PD patients showed frequent dystrophic neurites and transsynaptic degeneration of neurons and neuritic processes. These changes were not found in CN from the four control individuals. Only a few dystrophic neurites were noticed in one 67-year-old control patient. The development of neuroaxonal dystrophy in CN is consistent with a dying-back process, probably accompanying abnormalities of axonal transport in PD. Transsynaptic degeneration of neurons in CN very likely represents a morphological marker of disease severity. The occurrence of this change may account for the poor clinical response of patients with advanced PD to intracerebral implantation of dopaminergic tissues.