We studied mitochondrial respiratory chain function in skeletal muscle taken from 27 patients with idiopathic Parkinson's disease (PD; 21 Dopa-treated PD patients and 6 de novo patients), 5 patients with multiple system atrophy (MSA) and from 43 age-matched controls in order to determine the occurrence of mitochondrial respiratory chain abnormalities in parkinsonian syndromes. In our control subjects, we found a significant age-related decrease in the activity of respiratory chain complex I. As compared to carefully age-matched control subjects, activity of complex (NADH:ubiquinone reductase) was significantly lower in muscle mitochondria from patients with PD and MSA and a mean remaining activity < 30% of controls was observed. Mean activities of complexes III (ubiquinol:cytochrome c reductase) and IV (cytochrome c oxidase) were also lower in PD patients than controls, but a low activity (remaining activity < 30% of controls) was observed in only 5 PD patients for complex I and III or I and IV. No deficit in complex II activity (succinate:ubiquinone reductase) was observed. Our results support the hypothesis of a wide-spread mitochondrial complex I deficiency in PD and MSA as compared to age-matched controls, who showed age-related deficiency. This deficit can be found in de novo PD patients as well as in treated patients. The observed respiratory enzyme chain deficiency could not be explained by the dose and duration of L-Dopa or dopaminergic agonist treatment, the severity of the disease, anxiety or depression since no significant correlation was found between these parameters and enzyme complexes activities.