Guillain-Barre syndrome is an acute polyradiculoneuropathy with a variable clinical presentation. Accurate diagnostic criteria are essential for patient care and research, including clinical trials and vaccine safety studies. Several diagnostic criteria for Guillain-Barre syndrome have been proposed, including the recent set by the Brighton Collaboration. In the present study we describe in detail the key diagnostic features required to meet these Brighton criteria in a study population of 494 adult patients with Guillain-Barre syndrome, previously included in therapeutic and observational studies. The patients had a median age of 53 years (interquartile range 36-66 years) and males slightly predominated (56%). All patients developed bilateral limb weakness which generally involved both upper and lower extremities. The weakness remained restricted to the legs in 6% and to the arms in 1% of the patients. Decreased reflexes in paretic arms or legs were found initially in 91% of patients and in all patients during follow-up. Ten (2%) patients however showed persistence of normal reflexes in paretic arms. Disease nadir was reached within 2 weeks in 80%, within 4 weeks in 97% and within 6 weeks in all patients. A monophasic disease course occurred in 95% of patients, of whom 10% had a treatment-related fluctuation. A clinical deterioration after 8 weeks of onset of weakness occurred in 23 (5%) patients. Cerebrospinal fluid was examined in 474 (96%) patients. A mild pleocytosis (5 to 50 cells/mu l) was found in 15%, and none had more than 50 cells/mu l. An increased cerebrospinal fluid protein concentration was found only in 64% of patients, highly dependent on the timing of the lumbar puncture after onset of weakness (49% at the first day to 88% after 2 weeks). Nerve electrophysiology was compatible with the presence of a neuropathy in 99% of patients, but only 59% fulfilled the current criteria for a distinct subtype of Guillain-Barre syndrome. Patients with a complete data set (335) were classified according to the Brighton criteria, ranging from a high to a low level of diagnostic certainty, as level 1 in 61%, level 2 in 33%, level 3 in none, and level 4 in 6% of patients. Patients categorized in these levels did not differ with respect to proportion of patients with preceding events, initial clinical manifestations or outcome. The observed variability in the key diagnostic features of Guillain-Barre syndrome in the current cohort study, can be used to improve the sensitivity of the diagnostic criteria.