The effects of gold(I) complexes (auranofin, triethylphosphine gold and aurothiomalate), gold(III) complexes ([Au(2,2'-diethylendiamine)Cl]Cl(2), [(Au(2-(1,1-dimethylbenzyl)-pyridine) (CH(3)COO)(2)], [Au(6-(1,1-dimethylbenzyl)-2,2'-bipyridine)(OH)](PF(6)), [Au(bipy(dmb)-H)(2,6-xylidine)](PF(6))), metal ions (zinc and cadmium acetate) and metal complexes (cisplatin, zinc pyrithione and tributyltin) on mitochondrial thioredoxin reductase and mitochondrial functions have been examined. Both gold(I) and gold(III) complexes are extremely efficient inhibitors of thioredoxin reductase showing IC(50) ranging from 0.020 to 1.42 microM while metal ions and complexes not containing gold are less effective, exhibiting IC(50) going from 11.8 to 76.0 microM. At variance with thioredoxin reductase, auranofin is completely ineffective in inhibiting glutathione peroxidase and glutathione reductase, while gold(III) compounds show some effect on glutathione peroxidase. The mitochondrial respiratory chain is scarcely affected by gold compounds while the other metal complexes and metal ions, in particular zinc ion and zinc pyrithione, show a more marked inhibitory effect that is reflected on a rapid induction of membrane potential decrease that precedes swelling. Therefore, differently from gold compounds, the various metal ions and metal complexes exert their effect on different targets indicating a lower specificity. It is concluded that gold compounds are highly specific inhibitors of mitochondrial thioredoxin reductase and this action influences other functions such as membrane permeability properties. Metal ions and metal complexes markedly inhibit the activity of thioredoxin reductase although to an extent lower than that of gold compounds. They also inhibit mitochondrial respiration, decrease membrane potential and, finally, induce swelling.