Striatal dopamine transporter function and dopamine D2 receptor status were evaluated in 15 patients with early untreated Parkinson's disease using single photon emission tomography (SPECT) with 123I-Iodo-2beta-carboxymethoxy-3beta-(4-idiophenyl)tropane (beta-CIT) and 123I-Iodobenzamide (IBZM) as pre- and postsynaptic ligands. Symptoms were unilateral in five patients and bilateral but asymmetric in 10 patients. Patients with bilateral symptoms had significantly lower 18-hour striatal/cerebellar beta-CIT binding ratios (3.59 +/- 0.79) than hemiparkinsonian patients (5.76 +/- 1.48, p < 0.05) reflecting more advanced disease in this subgroup. Patients with bilateral parkinsonism were also found to have a significant side-to-side difference in striatal beta-CIT binding with more marked reduction contralateral to the presenting limb (18-hour striatal/cerebellar ratio: 4.13 +/- 0.78 [ipsilateral] versus 3.59 +/- 0.79 [contralateral], p < 0.05). Dopamine D2 receptor binding as measured by IBZM was significantly elevated contralateral to the affected side in hemiparkinsonian patients (striatal/cerebellar ratio: 2.42 +/- 0.90 [contralateral] versus 2.19 +/- 0.80 [ipsilateral], p < 0.05). This asymmetric upregulation was absent in the patients with bilateral parkinsonism (striatal/cerebellar ratio: 1.85 +/- 0.43 [contralateral to more severely affected side] versus 1.83 +/- 0.34 [ipsilateral], p > 0.05). Our data suggest that postsynaptic dopamine receptor upregulation contralateral to the presenting side occurs in untreated unilateral PD and disappears in untreated bilateral (asymmetric) PD despite a greater loss of dopamine transporter function. Combined beta-CIT and IBZM SPECT studies may be helpful to monitor the progression of nigrostriatal dysfunction in early PD.