Prominent inflammation in the demyelinative lesion of adreno-leukodystrophy (ALD) has suggested an immune-mediated pathogenetic component. Commercially available antibodies to T cells, B cells, macrophages, class I and II molecules, complement, IgG, IgM, IgA, interleukin-1 (IL-1), intercellular adhesion molecule-1 (ICAM-1) and tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF) were applied to paraffin sections of formaldehyde-fixed postmortem samples. Twenty-five primary demyelinative lesions from five juvenile ALD, three adult ALD, and three adrenomyeloneuropathic patients were evaluated with appropriate positive and negative controls. Macrophages and astrocytes were the predominant cells detected at the active edge; T lymphocytes, including T4 and CD45R subsets, were nearly as numerous but usually located around vessels within the lesion. B cells and plasma cells, usually containing IgG, were uncommon. The expression of class II molecules, restricted to one adult, was problematic; class I expression was increased in microvascular and other cells. Degraded myelin was labeled with antibodies to C3d and IL-1; IL-1 and ICAM-1 immunoreactivity was seen on microvessels and astrocytes. Tumor necrosis factor-alpha immunoreactivity was detected in macrophages, but more prominently in astrocytes. These data support a natural immune response in the demyelinative lesion of ALD, consisting predominantly of reactive astrocytes, macrophages, T cells and cytokines. A two-stage pathogenetic theory is discussed. The postulated roles of TNF and reactive astrocytes, in concert with a fundamental myelinolytic biochemical defect, suggest a different pathogenetic mechanism and raise novel therapeutic possibilities.