Spinocerebellar ataxia type-3 or Machado-Joseph disease (SCA3/MJD) is a member of the CAG/polyglutamine repeat disease family. In this family of disorders, a normally polymorphic CAG repeat becomes expanded, resulting in expression of an expanded polyglutamine domain in the disease gene product. Experimental models of polyglutamine disease implicate the nucleus in pathogenesis; however, the link between intranuclear expression of expanded polyglutamine and neuronal dysfunction remains unclear. Here we demonstrate that ataxin-3, the disease protein in SCA3/MJD, adopts a unique conformation when expressed within the nucleus of transfected cells. The monoclonal antibody 1C2 is known preferentially to bind expanded polyglutamine, but we find that it also binds a fragment of ataxin-3 containing a normal glutamine repeat. In addition, expression of ataxin-3 within the nucleus exposes the glutamine domain of the full-length non-pathological protein, allowing it to bind the monoclonal antibody 1C2. Fractionation and immunochemical experiments indicate that this novel conformation of intranuclear ataxin-3 is not due to proteolysis, suggesting instead that association with nuclear protein(s) alters the structure of full-length ataxin-3 which exposes the polyglutamine domain. This conformationally altered ataxin-3 is bound to the nuclear matrix. The pathological form of ataxin-3 with an expanded polyglutamine domain also associates with the nuclear matrix. These data suggest that an early event in the pathogenesis of SCA3/MJD may be an altered conformation of ataxin-3 within the nucleus that exposes the polyglutamine domain.