The subthalamic nucleus (STN) is an important component of the basal ganglia (BG) and plays a major role in the pathogenesis of Parkinson's disease (PD). Hyperactivity of STN as a consequence of the loss of dopaminergic inputs to the BG is believed to be a major factor in producing the motor symptoms of PD. High-frequency (HF) deep brain stimulation (DBS) of the STN has recently become an important treatment in PD patients where medications no longer provide satisfactory therapy. However, the mechanisms underlying DBS therapy are unknown, and there is seemingly conflicting data suggesting inhibition or excitation of STN neurons. This study directly examined the effects of stimulation in STN on the activity of STN neurons in PD patients during functional stereotactic mapping prior to insertion of DBS electrodes. Electrical stimulation in STN was investigated in twelve PD patients by recording the neural activity of a cell in STN with one electrode while applying current pulses through a second electrode located about 600 microm away. Stimulation at high frequencies (100-300 Hz) was found to produce inhibition following the stimulus train in 42% of the 60 cells tested. Inhibition during the train was seen in 13 of 15 neurons where it was possible to detect such activity. Furthermore, in 44% of the cases where HF stimulation produced inhibition there was an early inhibition followed by rebound excitation and a further inhibitory period, suggesting that the inhibitions observed are due to hyperpolarization. In eight of the 25 neurons inhibited by HF stimulation, the effects of single stimuli were determined and revealed that in seven of these there was an inhibitory period of 15-20 ms following each stimulus. Thus, the present findings suggest that local HF stimulation inhibits many STN neurons. However, these studies could not determine whether the stimulus also directly excited the cell and/or its axon, but other recent findings suggest that this is likely the case. Therefore, the overall effects of DBS stimulation in STN are likely to be inhibition of intrinsic and synaptically mediated activity, and its replacement by regular high-frequency firing.