Mutations in α-synuclein, parkin and ubiquitin C-terminal hydrolase L1, and defects in 26/20S proteasomes, cause or are associated with the development of familial and sporadic Parkinson's disease (PD). This suggests that failure of the ubiquitin–proteasome system (UPS) to degrade abnormal proteins may underlie nigral degeneration and Lewy body formation that occur in PD. To explore this concept, we studied the effects of lactacystin-mediated inhibition of 26/20S proteasomal function and ubiquitin aldehyde (UbA)-induced impairment of ubiquitin C-terminal hydrolase (UCH) activity in fetal rat ventral mesencephalic cultures. We demonstrate that both lactacystin and UbA caused concentration-dependent and preferential degeneration of dopaminergic neurons. Inhibition of 26/20S proteasomal function was accompanied by the accumulation of α-synuclein and ubiquitin, and the formation of inclusions that were immunoreactive for these proteins, in the cytoplasm of VM neurons. Inhibition of UCH was associated with a loss of ubiquitin immunoreactivity in the cytoplasm of VM neurons, but there was a marked and localized increase in α-synuclein staining which may represent the formation of inclusions bodies in VM neurons. These findings provide direct evidence that impaired protein clearance can induce dopaminergic cell death and the formation of proteinaceous inclusion bodies in VM neurons. This study supports the concept that defects in the UPS may underlie nigral pathology in familial and sporadic forms of PD.