Altered dendritic spines are characteristic of traumatized or diseased brain. Two general categories of spine pathology can be distinguished: pathologies of distribution and pathologies of ultrastructure. Pathologies of spine distribution affect many spines along the dendrites of a neuron and include altered spine numbers, distorted spine shapes, and abnormal loci of spine origin on the neuron. Pathologies of spine ultrastructure involve distortion of subcellular organelles within dendritic spines. Spine distributions are altered on mature neurons following traumatic lesions, and in progressive neurodegeneration involving substantial neuronal loss such as in Alzheimer's disease and in Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. Similarly, spine distributions are altered in the developing brain following malnutrition, alcohol or toxin exposure, infection, and in a large number of genetic disorders that result in mental retardation, such as Down's and fragile-X syndromes. An important question is whether altered dendritic spines are the intrinsic cause of the accompanying neurological disturbances. The data suggest that many categories of spine pathology may result not from intrinsic pathologies of the spiny neurons, but from a compensatory response of these neurons to the loss of excitatory input to dendritic spines. More detailed studies are needed to determine the cause of spine pathology in most disorders and relationship between spine pathology and cognitive deficits.