Measles viruses (MV) can be isolated from the brains of deceased subacute sclerosing panencephalitis patients only in a cell-associated form. These viruses are often defective in the matrix (M) protein and always seem to have an altered fusion protein cytoplasmic tail. We reconstituted a cell-free, infectious M-less MV (MV-DeltaM) from cDNA. In comparison with standard MV, MV-DeltaM was considerably more efficient at inducing cell-to-cell fusion but virus titres were reduced approximately 250-fold. In MV-DeltaM-induced syncytia the ribonucleocapsids and glycoproteins largely lost co-localization, confirming the role of M protein as the virus assembly organizer. Genetically modified mice were inoculated with MV-DeltaM or with another highly fusogenic virus bearing glycoproteins with shortened cytoplasmic tails (MV-Delta(tails)). MV-DeltaM and MV-Delta(tails) lost acute pathogenicity but penetrated more deeply into the brain parenchyma than standard MV. We suggest that enhanced cell fusion may also favour the propagation of mutated, assembly-defective MV in human brains.