We examined the degeneration of neocortical neurons in normal aging and Alzheimer's disease (AD) using terminal transferase (TdT)-mediated deoxyuridine triphosphate (d-UTP)-biotin nick-end labeling (TUNEL), a method that identifies DNA strand breaks and constitutes a positive marker for dying neurons. TUNEL was positive in neurons, glia, and microglial cells in AD but not in younger or age-matched cognitively characterized controls. Neuronal labeling in AD was most conspicuous in cortical layer III in the early stages of the disease and became more widespread as the disease progressed. In addition, we observed TUNEL of lamina III neurons in a subset of older subjects who had normal cognition but abundant neocortical senile plaques. In concert, the availability of a direct marker of dying neurons allows for specific correlations of cell death with other neuropathological markers as well as clinical variables. Observations from the present study suggest that the death of cortical neurons precedes the symptomatic stage of AD and evolves in parallel with the clinical progression of the disease and that there appears to be an association between the degree of cell death and the severity of senile plaques.