Neurofibrillary tangles and senile plaques, together with cells immunoreactive for the Alz-50 antibody (A50-ir cells) or for an antibody against paired helical filaments (PHF-ir cells), and amyloid deposits stained with antibodies against beta-(or A4)-amyloid, have been mapped throughout the ventral forebrains of 25 old people. The cognitive status of each individual was assessed and a "Clinical Dementia Rating" (CDR) assigned, either before death in the Memory and Aging Project of Washington University, or by a postmortem interview, with an appropriate collateral source. The cases studied included 13 nondemented cases (CDR = 0), six very mildly to mildly demented cases (CDR = 0/0.5 to 1) and six more severely demented cases (CDR = 2 to 3). Because even the very mildly demented brains showed substantial pathological change, emphasis was placed on examining the nondemented cases for the earliest changes that could be associated with Alzheimer's disease. Different distributions were found for tangles and plaques. Tangles (and A50-ir and PHF-ir cells) were present in all of the brains examined. In the younger nondemented cases (aged 54 to 63) there were a few affected cells in the anterior olfactory nucleus and the parahippocampal gyrus. In older nondemented cases (aged 73-89) more tangles were found in the same areas, and also in hippocampal field CA1. The very mildly demented cases had many more tangles, but their distribution was similar. Only in the severely demented cases were large numbers of tangles present in the neocortex. In contrast, no plaques (or beta-amyloid immunoreactivity) were found in any of the younger nondemented cases or in four of the eight older nondemented cases. In three older nondemented cases there were a few primitive plaques, which were restricted to localized regions of the neocortex (e.g., a portion of the inferior temporal cortex). In one nondemented case and all of the very mildly to mildly demented cases there were very large numbers of mostly primitive plaques, particularly in the neocortex. With greater severity of dementia there is a shift from primitive to mature plaques. These results were interpreted to imply that the first development of tangles and plaques occurs in different parts of the brain. Tangles appear during aging in the anterior olfactory nucleus, the parahippocampal gyrus and the hippocampus, but are rare in the neocortex except in demented brains. Conversely plaques may develop first in the neocortex. Unlike tangles, plaques are not a consistent feature of aging, at least up to age 80.