Neurofibrillary degeneration in the nucleus basalis and a loss of its cortical cholinergic projections are prominent components of the neuropathology in Alzheimer's disease (AD). The AD brain is also associated with a degeneration of the noradrenergic projections arising from the nucleus locus coeruleus (LC), but the time course of this lesion is poorly understood. To determine whether the LC displays neurofibrillary abnormalities early in the course of events leading to AD, we examined tissue specimens from seven cognitively normal controls and five subjects at the stages of mild cognitively impairment (MCI) or early AD. Tyrosine hydroxylase immunochemistry was used as a marker of LC neurons while AT8 immunolabeling visualized abnormal tau associated with neurofibrillary tangles and their precursors. Thioflavine-S was used as a marker for fully developed tangles. We found that AT8-positive labeling and thioflavine-S positive tangles were present in both groups of specimens. However, the percentage of neurons containing each of these markers was significantly higher in the cognitively impaired group. The MMSE scores displayed a negative correlation with both markers of cytopathology. These results indicate that cytopathology in the LC is an early event in the age-MCI-AD continuum and that it may be listed among the numerous factors that mediate the emergence of the cognitive changes leading to dementia.