S100 beta, a calcium-binding brain protein, has been implicated in brain development and hippocampal neurophysiology including long-term potentiation. Its gene maps to chromosome 21, which is duplicated in Down syndrome. S100 beta levels are elevated in both Down syndrome and Alzheimer's disease, human neurodegenerative diseases associated with mental retardation and dementia. To investigate whether or not elevated S100 beta levels can cause brain dysfunctioning in mammals, transgenic mice carrying multiple copies of the human S100 beta gene were generated. Several independent lines of transgenic mice were compared to age-matched normal control mice of identical genetic background (CD1) by measuring their exploratory behaviors in novel situations. Transgenic mice exhibited a range of defects including female specific hyperactivity, lack of habituation to novelty and reduced T-maze spontaneous alternation rate. Although the neuroanatomical or physiological substrate of these abnormalities is unknown, they are similar to the behavioral manifestations of hippocampal dysfunction. The S100 beta mouse offers one of the first opportunities to investigate the relationship between over-expression of a human chromosome 21 gene product and abnormal behavior and brain functioning.