The MPTP-treated monkey has become an important model for the study of Parkinson's disease. However, studies on the acute evolution of the neurotoxic effects of MPTP in primates are lacking. In the present study, 17 squirrel monkeys were given a single subcutaneous injection of MPTP (2.5 mg/kg). The behavioral effects and the concentrations of dopamine (DA), dihydroxyphenylacetic acid and homovanillic acid were determined in caudate, putamen and substantia nigra 1, 3, 5 (n = 3/time point) and 10 days (n = 6) after drug administration. Two animals were studied neuropathologically 8 and 9 days after MPTP. Profound parkinsonism was evident in all animals after 1 day and neuropathological examination revealed severe nerve cell destruction in the substantia nigra. Surprisingly, although 50-75% reductions in nigral DA were observed 1 and 3 days after MPTP, caudate DA was not reduced and putaminal DA was increased at these time points. The temporal sequence of these events differs markedly from that which occurs in the MPTP-treated mouse and suggests that, in the monkey, nigral cell bodies may represent an important initial site of MPTP-induced damage. Five and 10 days after MPTP, nigral DA depletions remained greater than 60% of control and striatal DA was reduced 50-85%. At these time points, the putamen was always more affected than the caudate. This interregional pattern of striatal DA deficits is similar to that seen in idiopathic Parkinson's disease.