Increased nigral iron content in the parkinsonian brain is now well documented and is implicated in the pathogenesis of this movement disorder. Free iron in the pigmented DA-containing neurons catalyze DA autoxidation and Fenton reaction to produce cytotoxic .OH, initiating lipid peroxidation and consequent cell damage. The present results clearly demonstrate that a regional increase in the levels of the "labile iron pool" can result in the degeneration of dopaminergic nigral neurons as reflected by a significant inhibition in the expression of tyrosine hydroxylase mRNA and DA depletion. Iron-complex-induced damage of dopaminergic neurons in the substantia nigra, might have resulted from a sequence of cytotoxic events including the .OH generation and lipid peroxidation as demonstrated in this study. This free-radical-induced oxidative nigral injury may be a reliable free-radical model for studying parkinsonism and may be relevant to idiopathic Parkinson's disease. This apparent nigral injury stimulated by Fe(2+)-citrate is more severe than that produced by ferric iron and its citrate complex. Moreover, these data indicate that Fe(2+)-citrate is as potent as MPP+ in causing oxidative injury to the substantia nigral neurons. However, the nigral toxicity of MPTP and its congeners are not progressive, while Fe(2+)-citrate complex may produce a progressive degeneration of the nigrostriatal neurons which is similar to the progression of ideopathic Parkinson's disease. Thus, this unique Fe(2+)-citrate complex animal model could be used for studying neuroprotective treatments for retarding or halting the progressive nigrostriatal degeneration caused by free radicals in the iron-rich basal ganglia.