The Alzheimer A beta amyloid peptide (A beta) is the principal proteinaceous component of amyloid associated with Alzheimer disease (AD). We have determined the relative abundance of A beta structural variants present in amyloid from brains of 10 individuals with sporadic AD, 2 individuals with familial AD carrying specific mutations in the Alzheimer amyloid precursor protein gene, and 5 nondemented elderly controls. A procedure of isolation based on the extreme insolubility of A beta amyloid was used. The purified, nondigested A beta was analyzed by N-terminal sequencing and electrospray-ionization mass spectrometry. Three principal A beta variants were detected--A beta-(1-40), A beta-(1-42), and A beta-(11-42)--in all brains analyzed. The predominant variant in sporadic AD was A beta-(1-40), whereas the principal A beta variant in nondemented elderly controls was A beta-(1-42). The ratio A beta-(1-40)/A beta-(1-42) differed by 10-fold between brains from nondemented controls and those with sporadic AD.