Using a technique which requires only 100 ml blood we investigated the electron transfer complexes (ETC) I, III and IV in platelet mitochondria of 44 control subjects, 27 patients with idiopathic Parkinson's disease and eight patients with Parkinson-plus syndromes due to multiple system atrophy. In both control subjects and patients, ETC measurements were repeated at intervals of several months. The activities varied considerably among normal subjects, but intra-individual variation of ETC activities were low at repetitive measurements. In normal subjects there was no correlation between enzyme activities and age or training state. There was no difference in enzyme activities between smokers and non-smokers in the control group. Complex I activity was lower in Parkinson's disease patients than in controls (14 versus 29 nmol/min/mg platelet protein; P < 0.001). Furthermore, the group difference in complex IV activity also reached statistical significance (83 versus 58 nmol/min/mg platelet protein; P < 0.001). Additionally, in some Parkinson's disease patients, activities of complex III were low and lay outside the control range, but the group difference did not reach significance. There was no correlation between complex I activity and disease duration or severity as well as the daily L-dopa dose in Parkinson's disease patients. Repeated measurements in five Parkinson's disease patients in the earliest stages of their illness demonstrated that the decrease in complex I and IV activities can develop rapidly within 1 year. In Parkinson-plus patients suffering from multiple system atrophy the ETC activities were normal.