The formation of thiobarbituric acid-reactive products was measured as an index of peroxidation by oxygen free radicals in homogenates of frontal cortex and cerebellum from brains taken at autopsy and verified histologically as being Alzheimer's (n = 6) or normal (n = 6). Compared with controls, basal peroxidation is significantly higher in Alzheimer's cortex, and this difference is also evident in the presence of exogenous iron. Peroxidation in cerebellum and levels of total glutathione, RNA, and DNA in cortex and cerebellum do not differ significantly between Alzheimer's brain and controls. Iron-induced peroxidation in cortex is reduced by the lazaroid U-74500A, with calculated IC50 values that are significantly higher in Alzheimer's samples (10 microM) than in controls (2.5 microM). These observations suggest that cerebral cortex from Alzheimer's patients differs from controls with respect to in vitro peroxidation.