Abstract Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is found in a familial form in around 5–10% of cases. Of these familial cases around 20% are associated with mutations of SOD-1. The genetic basis of the disease in the remaining familial cases, and genetic risk factors in sporadic cases, are unknown. Recently, the common forms of spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) have been associated with mutations of the SMN and NAIP genes on chromosome 5, in the region q11.2–13.3. Some patients with both familial and sporadic motor neuron disease show only lower motor neuron signs, in common with SMA patients, and families containing individuals with phenotypes of both childhood SMA and adult motor neuron disease have been reported. We therefore examined the SMA locus as a candidate for ALS, in 54 patients with sporadic motor neuron disease, and 10 single-generation familial patients (with no evidence of SOD-1 mutations), and in a single patient with Brown-Vialetto-Van Laere syndrome. No mutations of the SMN or NAIP genes were detected. The difficulties of classification of lower motor neuron presentations of motor neuron diseases are discussed. The demonstration that mutations diagnostic of SMA are not found in ALS patients helps distinguish these conditions. © 1997 Elsevier Science B.V.