In a previous immunohistological study of tissues from unusually early cases of MS cluster analysis revealed a progression of demyelination through five distinct stages [Gay F, Drye T, Dick G, et al. The application of multifactorial cluster analysis in the staging of plaques in early multiple sclerosis. Identification and characterization of the primary demyelinating lesion. Brain 1997;120:1461-83]. Tissues from six of the earliest cases in this series contained regions of normal appearing white and grey matter in which well developed inflammatory events, concentrated in perivascular spaces, were found to extend locally into the perivascular parenchyma to envelop ostensibly intact myelin sheaths. The beginnings of myelin sheath lysis and phagocytosis were subsequently detected within these lesions and similar foci were found in subpial and in subependymal tissues. They were characterised by a spreading HLA Class II antigen expression on microglia, and by the presence of co-locating C3 complement-IgG complexes on capillary basement membranes, on microglial cell membranes and within the cytoplasm of large bodied activated astrocytes. Parenchymal lesions contained significantly few CD4+ T cells and showed no evidence of capillary leakage of plasma proteins. Despite the presence of complexed immunoglobulin and complement, opsonization of the myelin sheath could not be demonstrated. These observations point to the presence in early MS of a diffusing, complement-fixing, myelinolytic antigen, processed mainly within the Virchow-Robin spaces and distributed in the cerebrospinal and extracellular fluid compartments of the central nervous system.