Rett syndrome is an increasingly recognized progressive disorder in females, commencing in infancy and characterized by autistic behavior, gait ataxia, stereotyped movements, seizures and generalized growth and mental retardation, possibly associated with disorders of central biogenic amine synthesis. The gene locus and pathogenesis of Rett syndrome are unknown. Autopsy studies in nine girls dying between 4 and 17 years, and sural nerve and muscle biopsies from two girls aged 3 and 17 years showed: (1) diffuse cortical atrophy/micrencephaly, with a decrease in brain weight by 12% to 34% of age-matched controls, apparently related to the duration of the disorder; (2) mild diffuse cortical atrophy with increased amounts of neuronal lipofuscin and occasional mild gliosis, but without signs of a storage disorder; (3) underpigmentation of the zona compacta nigrae, which showed fewer well-pigmented neurons for age and fewer melanin granules per neuron, while total numbers of nigral neurons and the substructure of neuromelanin were normal for age. No pathological changes were seen in other transmitter-specific brain stem nuclei; (4) immunoreactivity for tyrosine hydroxylase was slightly reduced in nigral and hypothalamic neurons, and the pituitary gland showed decreased immunoreaction for prolactin and growth hormone; (5) ultrastructurally, in frontal cortex and caudate nucleus, isolated abnormal neurites and reactive or degenerative axonal swellings were seen; the latter are possibly related to the nigral changes, suggesting some dysfunction of the dopaminergic nigrostriatal system, which is supported by neurochemical data; (6) preliminary biochemical studies revealed increased β-endorphines in thalamus and cerebellum; (7) peripheral nerves demonstrated increase in small fibers without demyelination and increased numbers of neurofilaments in axons, suggesting distal axonopathy, while skeletal muscle showed alterations in the sarcoplasmic reticulum with circular profiles in the Z-filaments. These nonspecific changes may be interpreted as early signs of denervation. The variety of lesions in the central, neuroendocrine and peripheral neuromuscular systems in Rett syndrome are discussed with regard to their clinical and biochemical significance. © 1988 Springer-Verlag.