In order to identify new metabolic abnormalities in patients with complex neurodegenerative disorders of unknown aetiology, we performed high resolution in vitro proton nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy on patient cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) samples. We identified five adult patients, including two sisters, with significantly elevated free sialic acid in the CSF compared to both the cohort of patients with diseases of unknown aetiology (n 144; P 0.001) and a control group of patients with well-defined diseases (n 91; P 0.001). All five patients displayed cerebellar ataxia, with peripheral neuropathy and cognitive decline or noteworthy behavioural changes. Cerebral MRI showed mild to moderate cerebellar atrophy (5/5) as well as white matter abnormalities in the cerebellum including the peridentate region (4/5), and at the periventricular level (3/5). Two-dimensional gel analyses revealed significant hyposialylation of transferrin in CSF of all patients compared to age-matched controls (P 0.001)a finding not present in the CSF of patients with Salla disease, the most common free sialic acid storage disorder. Free sialic acid content was normal in patients urine and cultured fibroblasts as were plasma glycosylation patterns of transferrin. Analysis of the ganglioside profile in peripheral nerve biopsies of two out of five patients was also normal. Sequencing of four candidate genes in the free sialic acid biosynthetic pathway did not reveal any mutation. We therefore identified a new free sialic acid syndrome in which cerebellar ataxia is the leading symptom. The term CAFSA is suggested (cerebellar ataxia with free sialic acid).