Extrapyramidal signs frequently accompany Alzheimer's disease (AD), but the pathological substrate remains unknown. Clinical and postmortem information from patients with AD, Parkinson's disease, or progressive supranuclear palsy and control subjects seen at a large tertiary medical center between 1989 and 1994 was examined. AD patients who had taken neuroleptics and AD brains that also contained Lewy bodies were excluded. The presence of extrapyramidal signs was determined using the Unified Parkinson's Disease Rating Scale. Sections of basal ganglia, subthalamic nucleus, and substantia nigra were examined for neurofibrillary tangles and neuropil threads and the nigra for neuronal numbers. Patients with AD (with or without extrapyramidal signs) did not show neuronal loss in the nigra compared to control subjects, while both Parkinson's disease and progressive supranuclear palsy brains showed marked depletion. The number of neurofibrillary tangles and neuropil threads was increased in AD (with or without extrapyramidal signs) nigra compared to control tissue, and also in progressive supranuclear palsy nigra, but not Parkinson's disease nigra. The numbers of nigral neurofibrillary tangles and neuropil threads were positively related to extrapyramidal signs in AD. There were no correlations between tangles and threads in the basal ganglia or subthalamic nucleus and extrapyramidal signs in AD. Thus, extrapyramidal signs in AD correlate best with tangle pathology in the nigra and do not require the concomitant presence of Lewy bodies.