There are several reports of a defect of complex I in the substantia nigra (SN) of Parkinson's disease (PD) patients. To evaluate whether this is specific to dopaminergic neurons or the phenotypically relevant consequence of a widespread failure of the mitochondrial oxidative phosphorylation (OXPHOS) system, we measured respiratory enzyme activities in muscle homogenates from 16 PD patients and eight age-matched controls, and in muscle isolated mitochondria of six PD patients and six age-matched controls. We found no difference between the PD and control groups. In addition, we detected, by polymerase chain reaction, the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) "common deletion" (CD) in muscle specimens of 14 of 17 PD patients, but we obtained similar results in age-matched controls. In both groups, the amount of CD-specific deleted (delta) mtDNA ranged from 0.0% to 0.1%. Our data suggest that PD cannot be attributed to a multisystem decline of mitochondrial OXPHOS, and that lesions of muscle mtDNA in PD are likely due to normal aging. However, there was a remarkable accumulation of delta mtDNA in the SN of a PD patient and an age-matched control, suggesting that the SN is exquisitely sensitive to age-dependent damage of the mitochondrial genome.