Little is known about the gait characteristics of subjects with de novo Parkinson's disease (PD). We hypothesized that alterations in the spatio-temporal characteristics of gait will already be quantifiable in these patients. The gait of 35 patients with idiopathic PD (mean age 60 years) who were in the early stages of the disease (Hoehn and Yahr stage 1.8 +/- 0.5, median 2.0, range 1.0-2.5) and were not yet treated with any anti-parkinsonian medications were compared with the gait of age- and sex-matched healthy controls (n = 22). The patients walked more slowly and with reduced swing times while also exhibiting increased left/right swing asymmetry and marked inconsistencies in the timing of gait. By contrast, significant group differences in the peak forces at heel-strike and in the stride-to-stride variability of the ground reaction forces (a reflection of muscle output consistency) were not observed. These findings indicate that in de novo PD, an altered gait pattern is observed, even though dramatic changes in the gait pattern may not yet be apparent visually (e.g. fairly intact gait speed). Furthermore, the results demonstrate that the observed alterations are not just side-effects of treatments or complications of the disease. Instead, there is evidence for motor programming deficits in gait, as revealed by increased gait variability and asymmetry in timing. PD apparently impinges on the regulation of a consistent gait rhythm, even early in the course of the disease when observed alterations are not the result of any pharmacologic treatment.