The chronic consumption of alcohol significantly reduces the number of vasopressin-producing neurons in the rat supraoptic nucleus [Maderia et al. (1993) Neourscience 56, 657-672] suggesting this region is particularly vulnerable to alcohol neurotoxicity. As hypothalamic vasopressin producing neurons are necessary for fluid homeostasis, it is important to assess if similar changes occur in humans. We analysed arginine vasopressin-immunoreactive neurons in the magnocellular hypothalamic nuclei of ten chronic alcoholic men (consuming > 80 g of ethanol per day) and four age- and sex-matched controls (consuming < 10g of ethanol per day). Brains were collected at autopsy and fixed in formalin. Serial 50 mu m-thick-sections of the hypothalamus were stained and assessed. The volume of the paraventricular and supraoptic nuclei and number of neurons were estimated using Cavalieri's principle and the optical dissector technique. The volume of these nuclei significantly correlated with the number of neurons and the number of vasopressin-immunoreactive neurons, and these measures significantly correlated with the maximum daily intake of alcohol. There was a loss of neurons at consumption levels greater than 100 g of ethanol per day, principally affecting the supraoptic nucleus although neuron loss also occurred in the paraventricular nucleus in cases with long histories of alcohol consumption. These results indicate that chronic alcohol consumption is toxic to hypothalamic vasopressin-producing neurons in a concentration- and time-dependent manner. As these magnocellular neurons are osmo-receptive, neuronal loss may result in fluid imbalances.