Dystonias comprise a group of movement disorders that are characterized by involuntary movements and postures. Insight into the nature of neuronal dysfunction has been provided by the identification of genes responsible for primary dystonias, the characterization of animal models and functional evaluations and in vivo brain imaging of patients with dystonia. The data suggest that alterations in neuronal development and communication within the brain create a susceptible substratum for dystonia. Although there is no overt neurodegeneration in most forms of dystonia, there are functional and microstructural brain alterations. Dystonia offers a window into the mechanisms whereby subtle changes in neuronal function, particularly in sensorimotor circuits that are associated with motor learning and memory, can corrupt normal coordination and lead to a disabling motor disorder. © 2008 Nature Publishing Group.