Indices of presynaptic cholinergic nerve endings were assayed in neocortical biopsy samples from patients with presenile dementia. For those patients in whom Alzheimer's disease was histologically confirmed, [14C]acetylcholine synthesis, choline acetyltransferase activity and choline uptake were all found to be markedly reduced (at least 40%) below mean control values. The changes occurred in samples from both the frontal and temporal lobes and for [14C]acetylcholine synthesis the decrease was similar under conditions of high and low neuronal activity (as assessed by incubations in 31 mM and 5 mM K+ respectively). Samples from other demented patients, in whom the histological features of Alzheimer's disease were not detected, produced values for all three biochemical parameters which were similar to controls. For the total group of patients with presenile dementia there were correlations between values for the three markers of presynaptic cholinergic nerve endings suggestive of a loss of functional activity at these sites in Alzheimer's disease.