Periventricular leukomalacia (PVL) is the major substrate of cerebral palsy in survivors of prematurity. Its pathogenesis is complex and likely involves ischemia/reperfusion in the critically ill premature infant, with impaired regulation of cerebral blood flow, as well as inflammatory mechanisms associated with maternal and/or fetal infection. During the peak period of vulnerability for PVL, developing oligodendrocytes (OLs) predominate in the white matter. We hypothesize that free radical injury to the developing OLs underlies, in part, the pathogenesis of PVL and the hypomyelination seen in long-term survivors. In human PVL, free radical injury is supported by evidence of oxidative and nitrative stress with markers to lipid peroxidation and nitrotyrosine, respectively. Evidence in normal human cerebral white matter suggests an underlying vulnerability of the premature infant to free radical injury resulting from a developmental mismatch of antioxidant enzymes (AOE) and subsequent imbalance in oxidant metabolism. In vitro studies using rodent OLs suggest that maturational susceptibility to reactive oxygen species is dependent, not only on levels of individual AOE, but also on specific interactions between these enzymes. Rodent in vitro data further suggest 2 mechanisms of nitric oxide damage: one involving the direct effect of nitric oxide on OL mitochondrial integrity and function, and the other involving an activation of microglia and subsequent release of reactive nitrogen species. The latter mechanism, while important in rodent studies, remains to be determined in the pathogenesis of human PVL. These observations together expand our knowledge of the role that free radical injury plays in the pathogenesis of PVL, and may contribute to the eventual development of therapeutic strategies to alleviate the burden of oxidative and nitrative injury in the premature infant at risk for PVL.