The frequency of and outcome from acute traumatic brain injury (TBI) in humans are detailed together with a classification of the principal focal and diffuse pathologies, and their mechanisms in extract laboratory models are outlined. Particular emphasis is given to diffuse axonal injury, which is a major determinant of outcome. Cellular and molecular cascades triggered by injury are described with reference to the induction of axolemmal and cytoskeletal abnormalities, necrotic and apoptotic cell death, the role of Ca2+, cytokines and free radicals, and damage to DNA. It is concluded that TBI in humans is heterogeneous, reflecting various pathologies in differing proportions in patients whose genetic background (APOE gene polymorphisms) contributes to the outcome at 6 months. Although considerable progress has been made in the understanding of TBI, much remains to be determined. However, a deeper understanding of the pathophysiological events may lead to the possibility of improving outcome from rational targeted therapy.