The polypeptide composition of neurofibrillary tangles (NFTs) and senile plaques (SPs) has been characterized extensively within the Alzheimer's disease (AD) brain. Because few data exist on the nonproteinaceous components of these lesions, we sought to determine if NFTs, neuropil threads (NTs), and SPs contain RNA species. To accomplish this, acridine orange (AO) histofluorescence was employed, alone or in combination with thioflavine S (TS) staining and immunohistochemistry to identify RNAs in paraffin-embedded tissue sections of hippocampus and entorhinal cortex. Postmortem brain samples came from 32 subjects including AD and elderly Down's syndrome (DS) patients, age-matched normal controls, and non-AD diseased controls. AO stained the cytoplasm of normal hippocampal and entorhinal neurons in all of the cases, while NFTs, NTs, and SPs were AO-positive in the same regions of AD and DS brains. Cytoplasmic AO histofluorescence was abolished with RNase, but not DNase or proteinase K, indicating the relative specificity of AO for RNA species. Quantitative analysis of double-labeled sections demonstrated that approximately 80% of TS-positive NFTs also were AO-positive, whereas approximately 55% of TS-stained SPs contained AO labeling. These novel observations demonstrate the presence of RNAs in NFTs, NTs, and SPs.