Idiopathic Parkinson's disease (IPD), progressive supranuclear palsy (PSP) and multiple system atrophy (MSA) are the most common movement disorders associated with neurodegenerative disease. A clinical differential diagnosis of IPD and atypical Parkinsonian disorders, such as MSA and PSP, is often complicated by the presence of symptoms common to both groups. Since Parkinsonism has a different pathophysiology in the cortical and subcortical brain structures, assessing the regional cerebral glucose metabolism may assist in making a differential diagnosis of Parkinsonism. The 18F-FDG PET images of IPD, MSA and PSP were assessed using statistical parametric mapping (SPM) in order to determine the useful metabolic patterns. Twenty-four patients with Parkinsonism: eight patients (mean age 67.9 +/- 10.7 years; M/F: 3/5) with IPD, nine patients (57.9 +/- 9.2 years; M/F: 4/5) with MSA and seven patients (67.6 +/- 4.8 years; M/F: 3/4) with PSP were enrolled in this study. All patients with Parkinsonism and 22 age-matched normal controls underwent 18F-FDG PET, (after 370 MBq 18F-FDG). The three groups and the individual IPD, MSA and PSP patients were compared with a normal control group using a two-sided t-test of SPM (uncorrected P < 0.01, extent threshold > 100 voxel). The IPD, MSA and PSP groups showed significant hypometabolism in the cerebral neocortex compared to the normal control group. The MSA group showed significant hypometabolism in the putamen, pons and cerebellum compared to the normal controls and IPD groups. In addition, PSP showed significant hypometabolism in the caudate nucleus, the thalamus, midbrain and the cingulate gyrus compared to the normal controls, the IPD and the MSA groups. In conclusion, an assessment of the 18F-FDG PET images using SPM may be a useful adjunct to a clinical examination when making a differential diagnosis of Parkinsonism.