Huntington's disease (HD) is a progressive neurodegenerative disorder characterized clinically by motor and psychiatric disturbances and pathologically by neuronal loss and gliosis (reactive astrocytosis) particularly in the striatum and cerebral cortex. We have recently created HD full-length cDNA transgenic mouse models that may serve as a paradigm for HD. A more detailed characterization of these models is presented here. The transgene encoding normal huntingtin consists of 9417 bp of the huntingtin coding sequences including 16 tandem CAGs coding for polyglutamines as part of exon 1. The transgene is driven by a heterologous cytomegalovirus promoter. Five independent transgenic mouse lines were obtained using this construct. An additional six transgenic lines were obtained using full-length HD constructs that have been modified to include either 48 or 89 CAG repeat expansions. Southern blot and densitometric analyses indicated unique integration sites for the transgene in each of the lines with a copy number ranging from two to 22 copies. Widespread expression of the transgene in brain, heart, spleen, kidney, lung, liver and gonads from each line was determined by Western blot analyses. In the brain, transgene expression was found in cerebral cortex, striatum, hippocampus and cerebellum. Expression of the transgene was as much as five times the endogenous mouse huntingtin level. Phenotypically, only mice expressing 48 or 89 CAG repeats manifested progressive behavioural and motor dysfunction. Early behavioural abnormalities were characterized by trunk curling and clasping of both fore- and hindlimbs when the animals were suspended by their tails. Subsequently, these mice exhibited hyperkinetic movements, including heightened exploratory activities, unidirectional rotational behaviour, backflipping and excessive grooming that lasted for several weeks. Eventually, the animals progressed to a hypokinetic phase consisting of slowed movements and lack of response to sensory stimuli. Urine retention or incontinence was also a prominent feature of the hypokinetic phase. At the end stage of the disease process, HD48(B,D) and HD89(A-C) mice became akinetic just prior to death. Neuropathological examination of mice at various stages indicated that it was only during the hypokinetic phase and thereafter when selective neuronal loss was most apparent. Regions of neurodegeneration and loss included the striatum, cerebral cortex, thalamus and hippocampus. TUNEL staining indicated an apoptotic mode of cell death in these brain regions. Comparative neuronal counts after Nissl staining showed as much as 20% loss of small and medium neurons in the striatum in mice at the hypokinetic and akinetic stages. Reactive astrocytosis accompanied the areas of neurodegeneration and loss. Polyglutamine aggregates in the form of neuronal intranuclear inclusions and diffuse nuclear and perinuclear aggregations were found in a small percentage of neurons, including those in brain regions that are typically spared in HD. This observation suggests that polyglutamine aggregates may not be sufficient to cause neuronal loss in HD. In both behavioural and neuropathological analyses, wild-type and transgenic animals with 16 CAG repeats were indistinguishable from each other and do not exhibit the changes observed for mice carrying the 48 and 89 CAG repeat mutations. Thus, animals expressing the CAG repeat expansions appear to represent clinically analogous models for HD pathogenesis, and may also provide insights into the underlying pathophysiological mechanisms of other triplet repeat disorders.