Neural tube defects represent some of the most common and serious of the congenital malformations. Although elevation of alpha-fetoprotein in amniotic fluid is not diagnostic, it does indicate an abnormality of the fetus in a very high proportion of cases. A normal level, however, does not exclude the possibility of a closed neural tube defect. It is therefore recommended that all amniocenteses performed between 15 and 20 weeks of gestation include measurement of alpha-fetoprotein. Maternal serum alpha-fetoprotein assay is a screening test and pilot studies will be necessary to determine its value as a routine prenatal blood test.