The micro-architecture of the substantia nigra was studied in control cases of varying age and patients with parkinsonism. A single 7 mu section stained with haematoxylin and eosin was examined at a specific level within the caudal nigra using strict criteria. The pars compacta was divided into a ventral and a dorsal tier, and each tier was further subdivided into 3 regions. In 36 control cases there was a linear fallout of pigmented neurons with advancing age in the pars compacta of the caudal substantia nigra at a rate of 4.7% per decade. Regionally, the lateral ventral tier was relatively spared (2.1% loss per decade) compared with the medial ventral tier (5.4%) and the dorsal tier (6.9%). In 20 Parkinson's disease (PD) cases of varying disease duration there was an exponential loss of pigmented neurons with a 45% loss in the first decade. Regionally, the pattern was opposite to ageing. Loss was greatest in the lateral ventral tier (average loss 91%) followed by the medial ventral tier (71%) and the dorsal tier (56%). The presymptomatic phase of PD from the onset of neuronal loss was estimated to be about 5 yrs. This phase is represented by incidental Lewy body cases: individuals who die without clinical signs of PD or dementia, but who are found to have Lewy bodies at post-mortem. In 7 cases cell loss was confined to the lateral ventral tier (average loss 52%) congruent with the lateral ventral selectivity of symptomatic PD. It was calculated that at the onset of symptoms there was a 68% cell loss in the lateral ventral tier and a 48% loss in the caudal nigra as a whole. The regional selectivity of PD is relatively specific. In 15 cases of striatonigral degeneration the distribution of cell loss was similar, but the loss in the dorsal tier was greater than PD by 21%. In 14 cases of Steele-Richardson-Olszewski syndrome (SRO) there was no predilection for the lateral ventral tier, but a tendency to involve the medial nigra and spare the lateral. These findings suggest that age-related attrition of pigmented nigral cells is not an important factor in the pathogenesis of PD.