Neuropathological studies were carried out in two patients with mitochondrial encephalomyopathies in whom the underlying lesions in muscle mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) and respiratory enzyme complexes have been investigated. The first, a man with Kearns-Sayre syndrome, died at the age of 49 years. Autopsy showed an old parietal lobe infarct, diffuse spongiform leukoencephalopathy of cerebral and cerebellar white matter and mild spongiform change in deep grey matter and brainstem nuclei. Heteroplasmy of skeletal muscle mitochondrial DNA with a 3.5 kb mtDNA deletion in one of two mtDNA populations was found. The second case, a woman, suffering from myoclonic epilepsy, cerebellar ataxia, bilateral sensorineural deafness, several 'stroke-like' episodes died at age 52. At autopsy, an old infarct was seen in the L internal capsule. Severe loss of neurons and gliosis were found in the dentate nuclei, moderate changes in the red nuclei and inferior olivary nuclei and mild changes in the substantial nigra and locus coeruleus. In both patients, skeletal muscle biopsy showed numbers of ragged-red fibres and intramitochondrial paracrystalline inclusions at electron microscopy. A defect in the synthesis of the ND5 subunit of the respiratory complex I was suggested in the second patient in whom a diagnosis of MELAS was made.