Experimental models such as the facial nerve axotomy paradigm in rodents allow the systematic and detailed study of the response of neurones and their microenvironment to various types of challenges. Well-studied experimental examples include peripheral nerve trauma, the retrograde axonal transport of neurotoxins and locally enhanced inflammation following the induction of experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis in combination with axotomy. These studies have led to novel insights into the regeneration programme of the motoneurone, the role of microglia and astrocytes in synaptic plasticity and the biology of glial cells. Importantly, many of the findings obtained have proven to be valid in other functional systems and even across species barriers. In particular, microglial expression of major histocompatibility complex molecules has been found to occur in response to various types of neuronal damage and is now regarded as a characteristic component of "glial inflammation". It is found in the context of numerous neurodegenerative disorders including Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease. The detachment of afferent axonal endings from the surface membrane of regenerating motoneurones and their subsequent displacement by microglia ("synaptic stripping") and long-lasting insulation by astrocytes have also been confirmed in humans. The medical implications of these findings are significant. Also, the facial nerve system of rats and mice has become the best studied and most widely used test system for the evaluation of neurotrophic factors.