Background: One of the perceptual abnormalities observed in Parkinson's disease (PD) is a deficit in the suppression of reflexive saccades that are automatically triggered by the onset of a peripheral target. Impairment of substantia nigra function is thought to lead to this reduced ability to suppress reflexive saccades. Methods: The present study examined whether this perceptual deficit is also present in early stage PD when using hardly noticeable task-irrelevant stimuli. Eleven non-demented de novo, untreated PD patients (mean age 57 yr, range 44-70) participated in the study as well as 12 age-matched controls. Performance on an 'oculomotor capture' task, in which in half of the trials an irrelevant stimulus with sudden onset was added to the display, was compared between patients and controls. Analysis of variance (ANOVA) was performed with group (patients/controls) and age (< 61 yrs/≥ 61 yrs) as independent factors and type of trial (control/distracter) as repeated measurements factor. The factor sex was used as covariate. Results: With respect to Reaction Time (RT), a significant interaction between group and condition was found. RTs increased under the 'irrelevant stimulus' condition in both groups, the patients exhibiting a significantly larger increase in RTs than the control group. Also, a significant interaction effect between group and condition for number of correct responses was found. The number of correct responses was reduced in the onset distracter condition, the reduction being larger in the patients. In the patient group, contrary to the control group, a higher age was associated with fewer correct responses at baseline and in the onset distracter condition, suggesting that perceptual functions in PD are highly susceptible to the effects of ageing. The increased reaction times and larger number of incorrect responses of the PD patients in the onset distracter condition may be related to impairments of substantia nigra function and lower brain stem. Conclusion: The capture task seems to be a sensitive instrument to detect early perceptual deficits in PD. The magnitude of the observed deficits suggests that perceptual functions in early stage PD are so substantially impaired that this may interfere with daily activities. © 2006 Deijen et al; licensee BioMed Central Ltd.