Multiple system atrophy is an atypical parkinsonism characterized by severe motor disabilities that are poorly levodopa responsive. Most patients develop rapid eye movement sleep behaviour disorder. Because parkinsonism is absent during rapid eye movement sleep behaviour disorder in patients with Parkinson's disease, we studied the movements of patients with multiple system atrophy during rapid eye movement sleep. Forty-nine non-demented patients with multiple system atrophy and 49 patients with idiopathic Parkinson's disease were interviewed along with their 98 bed partners using a structured questionnaire. They rated the quality of movements, vocal and facial expressions during rapid eye movement sleep behaviour disorder as better than, equal to or worse than the same activities in an awake state. Sleep and movements were monitored using video-polysomnography in 22/49 patients with multiple system atrophy and in 19/49 patients with Parkinson's disease. These recordings were analysed for the presence of parkinsonism and cerebellar syndrome during rapid eye movement sleep movements. Clinical rapid eye movement sleep behaviour disorder was observed in 43/49 (88%) patients with multiple system atrophy. Reports from the 31/43 bed partners who were able to evaluate movements during sleep indicate that 81% of the patients showed some form of improvement during rapid eye movement sleep behaviour disorder. These included improved movement (73% of patients: faster, 67%; stronger, 52%; and smoother, 26%), improved speech (59% of patients: louder, 55%; more intelligible, 17%; and better articulated, 36%) and normalized facial expression (50% of patients). The rate of improvement was higher in Parkinson's disease than in multiple system atrophy, but no further difference was observed between the two forms of multiple system atrophy (predominant parkinsonism versus cerebellar syndrome). Video-monitored movements during rapid eye movement sleep in patients with multiple system atrophy revealed more expressive faces, and movements that were faster and more ample in comparison with facial expression and movements during wakefulness. These movements were still somewhat jerky but lacked any visible parkinsonism. Cerebellar signs were not assessable. We conclude that parkinsonism also disappears during rapid eye movement sleep behaviour disorder in patients with multiple system atrophy, but this improvement is not due to enhanced dopamine transmission because these patients are not levodopa-sensitive. These data suggest that these movements are not influenced by extrapyramidal regions; however, the influence of abnormal cerebellar control remains unclear. The transient disappearance of parkinsonism here is all the more surprising since no treatment (even dopaminergic) provides a real benefit in this disabling disease.