Administration of N-methyl-4-phenyl-1,2,3,6-tetrahydropyridine (MPTP) to mammals causes damage to the nigrostriatal dopaminergic pathway similar to that observed in Parkinson's disease. It has been suggested that the mechanism by which MPTP kills dopamine (DA) neurons involves an energy crisis due to the inhibition of mitochondrial complex I. In addition, superoxide radicals (O2-), generated subsequent to the blockade of mitochondrial complex I, may also be involved in MPTP- induced neurotoxicity. Superoxide dismutase (SOD) is a scavenger enzyme that protects cells from the hazard of O2- radicals. To evaluate further the role of O2- radical in MPTP-induced toxicity, we tested the effects of MPTP in transgenic mice with increased SOD activity. In nontransgenic littermates with normal SOD activity, MPTP injection causes a marked reduction in striatal levels of DA and its metabolites as well as in striatal and nigral 3H-DA uptake; these findings are consistent with a loss in dopaminergic neurons. In contrast, in transgenic mice with increased SOD activity, MPTP injection does not cause any significant changes either in levels of DA and metabolites or in 3H-DA uptake. We show that this lack of toxicity is not due to a lower delivery of MPTP to the brain following its intraperitoneal injection, to reduced brain biotransformation of MPTP to N-methyl-4- phenylpyridinium ion (MPP+), to diminished striatal mitochondrial monoamine oxidase B activity, to decreased synaptosomal uptake of MPP+, to lower potency of MPP+ to inhibit the complex I of the mitochondrial electron transport chain, or to faster brain elimination of MPP+. These results suggest that increased SOD activity is, most likely, the protective factor that confers resistance to transgenic mice against MPTP-induced neurotoxicity. Thus, this study provides further evidence that some of the deleterious effects of MPTP may be mediated by O2- radicals. The similarity between the MPTP model and Parkinson's disease further raises the possibility that oxy-radicals may play a significant role in the etiology of this neurodegenerative disorder.