Oxidative damage, including modification of nucleic acids, may contribute to dopaminergic neurodegeneration in the substantia nigra (SN) of patients with Parkinson's disease (PD). To investigate the extent and distribution of nucleic acid oxidative damage in these vulnerable dopaminergic neurons, we immunohistochemically characterized a common product of nucleic acid oxidation, 8-hydroxyguanosine (8OHG). In PD patients, cytoplasmic 8OHG immunoreactivity was intense in neurons of the SN, and present to a lesser extent in neurons of the nucleus raphe dorsalis and oculomotor nucleus, and occasionally in glia. The proportion of 8OHG immunoreactive SN neurons was significantly greater in PD patients compared to age-matched controls. Midbrain sections from patients with multiple system atrophy-Parkinsonian type (MSA-P) and dementia with Lewy bodies (DLB) also were examined. These showed increased cytoplasmic 8OHG immunoreactivity in SN neurons in both MSA-P and DLB compared to controls; however, the proportion of positive neurons was significantly less than in PD patients. The regional distribution of 8OHG immunoreactive neurons within the SN corresponded to the distribution of neurodegeneration for these three diseases. Nuclear 8OHG immunoreactivity was not observed in any individual. The type of cytoplasmic nucleic acid responsible for 8OHG immunoreactivity was analyzed by preincubating midbrain sections from PD patients with RNase, DNase, or both enzymes. 8OHG immunoreactivity was substantially diminished by either RNase or DNase, and completely ablated by both enzymes. These results suggest that oxidative damage to cytoplasmic nucleic acid is selectively increased in midbrain, especially the SN, of PD patients and much less so in MSA-P and DLB patients. Moreover, oxidative damage to nucleic acid is largely restricted to cytoplasm with both RNA and mitochondrial DNA as targets.