Standard MPTP treatment regimens in primates result in > 85% destruction of nigral dopaminergic neurons and the onset of marked motor deficits that respond to known symptomatic treatments for Parkinson's disease (PD). The extent of nigral degeneration reflects the late stages of PD rather than events occurring at its onset. We report on a modified MPTP treatment regimen that causes nigral dopaminergic degeneration in common marmosets equivalent to that occurring at the time of initiation of motor symptoms in man. Subcutaneous administration of MPTP 1 mg/kg for 3 consecutive days caused a reproducible 60% loss of nigral tyrosine hydroxylase (TH)-positive cells, which occurred mainly in the calbindin-D28k-poor nigrosomes with a similar loss of TH-immunoreactivity (TH-ir) in the caudate nucleus and the putamen. The animals showed obvious motor abnormalities with reduced bursts of activity and the onset of motor disability. However, the loss of striatal terminals did not reflect early PD because a greater loss of TH-ir occurred in the caudate nucleus than in the putamen and a marked reduction in TH-ir occurred in striatal patches compared to the matrix. Examination of striatal fibres following a partial MPTP lesion showed a conspicuous increase in the number and the diameter of large branching fibres in the putaminal and to some extent caudatal matrix, pointing to a possible compensatory sprouting of dopaminergic terminals. In addition, these partially lesioned animals did not respond to acute treatment with L-DOPA. This primate partial lesions model may be useful for examining potential neuroprotective or neurorestorative agents for PD.