Atypical hyperplastic (AH) breast lesions are currently classified and treated as benign proliferative disorders, but their presence is associated with a four- to fivefold increased risk of developing breast cancer. Currently, it is not known if an AH lesion is a marker of increased risk, or is itself a premalignant lesion. To investigate this question, we used a series of 15 microsatellite loci to analyze 15 separate AH lesions microdissected from the archived pathology specimens of subjects with no coincident or previous breast malignancy. We found that a significant subset (6/15, or 40%) of these AH lesions demonstrated evidence of monoclonal microsatellite alterations, both length variation and allele loss. These monoclonal alterations suggest that the AH lesion has already undergone genetic changes conferring a growth advantage. Thus, these AH lesions may actually be early neoplasms. We also noted that monoclonality characterized AH lesions in younger as compared with older women (44 vs. 59 yrs, P < 0.05) and that a subset of monoclonal lesions (4/6) demonstrated microsatellite alterations at more than one locus, suggesting that an undetermined type of genetic instability may play a role early in the development of abnormal breast proliferations. These findings contribute to our understanding of the pathogenesis of AH lesions and may have implications regarding their relationship to breast tumors.