1-Methyl-4-phenyl-1,2,3,6-tetrahydropyridine (MPTP) induces a Parkinson-like syndrome through biotransformation by monoamine oxidase B to the neurotoxic metabolite 1-methyl-4-phenylpyridine. Neuroprotection may be provided by parallel N-demethylation and N-oxidation pathways mediated by the microsomal cytochrome P450 and flavin monooxygenase systems, respectively. The aims of this study were to characterise the N-demethylation of MPTP by human liver microsomes over a wide range of concentrations, and to identify the cytochrome P450 enzymes involved in this reaction. The kinetics of the N-demethylation of MPTP (1 microM - 3 mM) by microsomes from the liver of an extensive metabolizer with respect to cytochrome P4502D6 (CYP2D6) activity were biphasic (apparent Km1 and Km2 values = 48 and 2882 microM). The high affinity activity was abolished in the presence of quinidine (1 microM) and was absent in microsomes from a genotypically poor metabolizer with respect to CYP2D6. Yeast microsomes containing heterologously expressed CYP2D6 N-demethylated MPTP (Km = 39 microM), and there was a high correlation between the quinidine-inhibitable N-demethylation of MPTP (50 microM) (0.7-91%, mean 44%, of total activity) and the alpha-hydroxylation of metoprolol in microsomes from 11 human livers (rs = 0.92; P < .001). At 50 microM MPTP, N-demethylase activity in human liver microsomes was also inhibited by furafylline (10 microM) and ketoconazole (2 microM) (mean inhibition 39 and 13%, respectively; n = 11 livers). Yeast microsomes containing heterologously expressed human CYP1A2 N-demethylated MPTP with a Km of 2246 microM. These findings indicate that CYP2D6, CYP1A2 and, to a lesser extent CYP3A4, may have a role in protecting against Parkinson's disease induced by MPTP and other potential environmental neurotoxins. The data provide some biochemical support for the proposition that genotypically poor metabolizers with respect to CYP2D6 are overrepresented in some populations of Parkinson's patients, and that smokers (induced CYP1A2?) are underrepresented.