The cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) of multiple sclerosis (MS) patients contains a 17 kDa glycoproteic factor with gliotoxic properties in vitro. In order to study the physiopathological role of this gliotoxic factor in vivo, we have injected a partially purified preparation and appropriate controls in rat CSF and investigated whether it induces cell death in the rat central nervous system (CNS), 10 days and 3 months after injection. We used the TUNEL assay in association with specific immunohistochemistry to characterize dying cells in the gliotoxic factor- treated rat CNS. At 10 days post-injection, TUNEL-positive cells were observed in the whole rat CNS. They were particularly numerous in the choroid plexus, ependymal epithelium, cerebral white matter, cerebral vascular endothelium, arachnoid spaces and less frequent in the gray matter of brain and spinal cord. The predominant type of TUNEL-positive cells observed at 10 days post-injection was astrocytes, in white matter, gray matter, occasionnally around damaged endothelial cells in periventricular and subpial spaces. Other TUNEL-positive cells were identified as oligodendrocytes by an oligodendrocyte specific RIP immunostaining, at 10 days post-treatment with the gliotoxic factor. Interestingly, demyelination and death of oligodendrocytes were more important 3 months post-injection: TUNEL-RIP positive oligodendrocytes were generally associated with multifocal demyelinating areas. Clearly, the 17 kDa gliotoxic factor injection in rat CSF triggers demyelination and may be used as a new animal model for MS. Also, our results suggest a new possible scenario for MS pathogenesis: death of oligodendrocytes and astrocytes, stimulated by the MS gliotoxic factor causes the breakdown of the blood-brain barrier (BBB) and the demyelinating cascade.