The dopa analogue 6-fluorodopa (6-FD) used with positron emission tomography (PET) allows in vivo visualization of dopamine and its metabolites in nigrostriatal nerve endings. We have now found abnormal 6-FD scans in four subjects exposed to 1-methyl-4-phenyl-1,2,3,6-tetrahydropyridine (MPTP). None had parkinsonism. The results suggest subclinical damage to the nigrostriatal pathway. This is the first direct evidence that dopaminergic impairment can exist without clinical deficits. Here we discuss this finding in the context of the hypothesis that Parkinson's disease may stem from clinically silent damage to the substantia nigra, followed by slow attrition of neurones in this region because of its particular vulnerability to cell loss as a normal consequence of ageing.