Neurophysiological deficits in the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) have been described in positron emission tomography studies of schizophrenia and depression. In schizophrenia and depression this deficit has been associated with the syndromes of psychomotor poverty and psychomotor retardation, respectively. Such findings lead to a prediction that DLPFC dysfunction is symptom rather than disease related. This prediction was empirically tested in a retrospective study that pooled data from 40 patients meeting research diagnostic criteria for depression and 30 patients meeting DSM-III R criteria for schizophrenia. The patients were categorised into those with and without poverty of speech, a symptom that is an observable manifestation of psychomotor impairment. The profile of regional cerebral blood flow (rCBF), measured in all subjects under resting conditions, was subsequently compared in these two groups. Patients with poverty of speech had significantly lower rCBF in the left DLFPC. This reduction of rCBF was independent of diagnosis. The findings support the view that the study of symptoms, or symptom clusters, can provide information additional to that of traditional diagnostic systems in the study of the major psychoses.