Levels of iron, copper, zinc and manganese were measured by inductively coupled plasma spectroscopy in frozen postmortem brain tissue from patients with Parkinson's disease (PD), progressive supranuclear palsy (PSP), multiple system atrophy with strionigral degeneration (MSA), and Huntington's disease (HD) compared with control subjects. Total iron levels were found to be elevated in the areas of basal ganglia showing pathological change in these disorders. In particular, total iron content was increased in substantia nigra in PD, PSP and MSA, but not in HD. Total iron levels in the striatum (putamen and/or caudate nucleus) were increased in PSP, MSA and HD but not in PD. Total iron levels were decreased in the globus pallidus in PD. There were no consistent alterations of manganese levels in basal ganglia structures in any of the diseases studied. Copper levels were decreased in the substantia nigra in PD, and in the cerebellum in PSP, and were elevated in the putamen and possibly substantia nigra in HD. Zinc levels were only increased in PD, in substantia nigra and in caudate nucleus and lateral putamen. Levels of the iron binding protein ferritin were measured in the same patient groups using a radio-immunoassay technique. Increased iron levels in basal ganglia were generally associated with normal or elevated levels of ferritin immunoreactivity, for example, the substantia nigra in PSP and possibly MSA, and in putamen in MSA. The exception was PD where there was a generalized reduction in brain ferritin immunoreactivity, even in the substantia nigra. An increase in total iron content appears to be a response to neurodegeneration in affected basal ganglia regions in a number of movement disorders. However, only in PD was there an increased total iron level, decreased ferritin content, decreased copper content, and an increased zinc concentration in substantia nigra. These findings suggest an alteration of iron handling in the substantia nigra in PD. Depending on the form in which the excess iron load exists in nigra in PD, it may contribute to the neurodegenerative process.