To assess the relationship between dementia, neuronal loss, and neuropathological findings in Alzheimer's disease (AD), we counted the number of neurons, senile plaques, and neurofibrillary tangles in a high-order association cortex. We studied the superior temporal sulcus of 34 individuals with AD and 17 nondemented control subjects, using statistically unbiased, stereological counting techniques. The number of superior temporal sulcus neurons in nondemented control subjects was stable across the sixth to ninth decades. In AD, more than 50% of the neurons were lost. Both neuronal loss and neurofibrillary tangles increased in parallel with the duration and severity of illness, but the amount of neuronal loss exceeded by manyfold the amount of neurofibrillary tangles accumulated. In contrast to the correlation between neurofibrillary tangles and neuronal loss, the number of senile plaques and the percentage of the superior temporal sulcus that was covered by Abeta (amyloid burden) were not related to neuronal loss, number of neurofibrillary tangles, or duration of disease. Neither the amount nor the rate of neuronal loss in the superior temporal sulcus in AD correlated with apolipoprotein E genotype. These data suggest that neuronal loss in association areas such as the superior temporal sulcus contributes directly to cognitive impairment in AD.