We studied the functional significance of the involutional and degenerative changes in the substantia nigra as seen on magnetic resonance imaging. The width of the pars compacta correlated with motor performance in both healthy elderly subjects and idiopathic Parkinson's disease groups. Patients exhibited significant reduction of the width of the pars compacta and the level of this reduction correlated strongly with the clinical status evaluated by the Unified Parkinson's Disease Rating Scale. These results suggest that pars compacta shrinkage may account for a substantial part of the structural substratum of motor decline in the elderly. Moreover, an analysis of the relationship of the midbrain damage with specific symptoms in Parkinson's disease could contribute to a better understanding of the pathogenesis of this degenerative process.