Brain injury in the premature infant is a problem of enormous importance. Periventricular leukomalacia (PVL) is the major neuropathologic form of this brain injury and underlies most of the neurologic morbidity encountered in survivors of premature birth. Prevention of PVL now seems ultimately achievable because of recent neurobiologic insights into pathogenesis. The pathogenesis of this lesion relates to three major interacting factors. The first two of these, an incomplete state of development of the vascular supply to the cerebral white matter, and a maturation-dependent impairment in regulation of cerebral blood flow underlie a propensity for ischemic injury to cerebral white matter. The third major pathogenetic factor is the maturation-dependent vulnerability of the oligodendroglial (OL) precursor cell that represents the major cellular target in PVL. Recent neurobiologic studies show that these cells are exquisitely vulnerable to attack by free radicals, known to be generated in abundance with ischemia-reperfusion. This vulnerability of OLs is maturation-dependent, with the OL precursor cell highly vulnerable and the mature OL resistant, and appears to relate to a developmental window characterized by a combination of deficient antioxidant defenses and active acquisition of iron during OL differentiation. The result is generation of deadly reactive oxygen species and apoptotic OL death. Important contributory factors in pathogenesis interact with this central theme of vulnerability to free radical attack. Thus, the increased likelihood of PVL in the presence of intraventricular hemorrhage could relate to increases in local iron concentrations derived from the hemorrhage. The important contributory role of maternal/fetal infection or inflammation and cytokines in the pathogenesis of PVL could be related to effects on the cerebral vasculature and cerebral hemodynamics, to generation of reactive oxygen species, or to direct toxic effects on vulnerable OL precursors. A key role for elevations in extracellular glutamate, caused by ischemia-reperfusion, is suggested by demonstrations that glutamate causes toxicity to OL precursors by both nonreceptor- and receptor-mediated mechanisms. The former involves an exacerbation of the impairment in antioxidant defenses, and the latter, an alpha-amino-3-hydroxy-5-methyl-4-isoxazolepropionic acid/kainate receptor-mediated cell death. Most importantly, these new insights into the pathogenesis of PVL suggest potential preventive interventions. These include avoidance of cerebral ischemia by detection of infants with impaired cerebrovascular autoregulation, e.g. through the use of in vivo near-infrared spectroscopy, the use of free radical scavengers to prevent toxicity by reactive oxygen species, the administration of alpha-amino-3-hydroxy-5-methyl-4-isoxazolepropionic acid/kainate receptor antagonists to prevent glutamate-mediated injury, or the use of maternal antibiotics or anticytokine agents to prevent toxicity from maternal/fetal infection or inflammation and cytokines.