To help account for the variable quality and quantity of RNA in human brain, we have studied the effect of premortem (agonal state) and postmortem factors on the detection of poly(A)+mRNA and eight mRNAs. For comparison, the influence of the same factors upon gene products encoded by the mRNAs was studied immunocytochemically or by receptor autoradiography. Brain pH declined with increasing age at death and was related to agonal state severity, but was independent of postmortem interval and the histological presence of hypoxic changes. By linear regression, pH was significantly associated with the abundance of several of the RNAs, but not with poly(A)+mRNA, immunoreactivities, or binding site densities. Postmortem interval had a limited influence upon mRNA and protein products. Freezer storage time showed no effect. Parallel rat brain studies showed no relationship between postmortem interval (0-48 h) and amounts of total RNA, poly(A)+RNA, or two individual mRNAs; however, RNA content was reduced by 40% at 96 h after death. pH is superior to clinical assessments of agonal state or mode of death in predicting mRNA preservation. It provides a simple means to improve human brain gene expression studies. pH is stable after death and during freezer storage and can be measured either in cerebrospinal fluid or in homogenised tissue.