We previously have described a group of patients with gluten sensitivity presenting with ataxia (gluten ataxia) and suggested that this disease entity may account for a large number of patients with sporadic idiopathic ataxia. We have therefore investigated the prevalence of gluten sensitivity amongst a large cohort of patients with sporadic and familial ataxia and looked at possible genetic predisposition to gluten sensitivity amongst these groups. Two hundred and twenty-four patients with various causes of ataxia from North Trent (59 familial and/or positive testing for spinocerebellar ataxias 1, 2, 3, 6 and 7, and Friedreich's ataxia, 132 sporadic idiopathic and 33 clinically probable cerebellar variant of multiple system atrophy MSA-C) and 44 patients with sporadic idiopathic ataxia from The Institute of Neurology, London, were screened for the presence of antigliadin antibodies. A total of 1200 volunteers were screened as normal controls. The prevalence of antigliadin antibodies in the familial group was eight out of 59 (14%), 54 out of 132 (41%) in the sporadic idiopathic group, five out of 33 (15%) in the MSA-C group and 149 out of 1200 (12%) in the normal controls. The prevalence in the sporadic idiopathic group from London was 14 out of 44 (32%). The difference in prevalence between the idiopathic sporadic groups and the other groups was highly significant (P < 0.0001 and P < 0.003, respectively). The clinical characteristics of 68 patients with gluten ataxia were as follows: the mean age at onset of the ataxia was 48 years (range 14-81 years) with a mean duration of the ataxia of 9.7 years (range 1-40 years). Ocular signs were observed in 84% and dysarthria in 66%. Upper limb ataxia was evident in 75%, lower limb ataxia in 90% and gait ataxia in 100% of patients. Gastrointestinal symptoms were present in only 13%. MRI revealed atrophy of the cerebellum in 79% and white matter hyperintensities in 19%. Forty-five percent of patients had neurophysiological evidence of a sensorimotor axonal neuropathy. Gluten-sensitive enteropathy was found in 24%. HLA DQ2 was present in 72% of patients. Gluten ataxia is therefore the single most common cause of sporadic idiopathic ataxia. Antigliadin antibody testing is essential at first presentation of patients with sporadic ataxia.