Central nervous system myelin is a specialized structure produced by oligodendrocytes that ensheaths axons, allowing rapid and efficient saltatory conduction of action potentials. Many disorders promote damage to and eventual loss of the myelin sheath, which often results in significant neurological morbidity. However, little is known about the fundamental mechanisms that initiate myelin damage, with the assumption being that its fate follows that of the parent oligodendrocyte. Here we show that NMDA (N-methyl-d-aspartate) glutamate receptors mediate Ca2+ accumulation in central myelin in response to chemical ischaemia in vitro. Using two-photon microscopy, we imaged fluorescence of the Ca2+ indicator X-rhod-1 loaded into oligodendrocytes and the cytoplasmic compartment of the myelin sheath in adult rat optic nerves. The AMPA (alpha-amino-3-hydroxy-5-methyl-4-isoxazole propionic acid)/kainate receptor antagonist NBQX completely blocked the ischaemic Ca2+ increase in oligodendroglial cell bodies, but only modestly reduced the Ca2+ increase in myelin. In contrast, the Ca2+ increase in myelin was abolished by broad-spectrum NMDA receptor antagonists (MK-801, 7-chlorokynurenic acid, d-AP5), but not by more selective blockers of NR2A and NR2B subunit-containing receptors (NVP-AAM077 and ifenprodil). In vitro ischaemia causes ultrastructural damage to both axon cylinders and myelin. NMDA receptor antagonism greatly reduced the damage to myelin. NR1, NR2 and NR3 subunits were detected in myelin by immunohistochemistry and immunoprecipitation, indicating that all necessary subunits are present for the formation of functional NMDA receptors. Our data show that the mature myelin sheath can respond independently to injurious stimuli. Given that axons are known to release glutamate, our finding that the Ca2+ increase was mediated in large part by activation of myelinic NMDA receptors suggests a new mechanism of axo-myelinic signalling. Such a mechanism may represent a potentially important therapeutic target in disorders in which demyelination is a prominent feature, such as multiple sclerosis, neurotrauma, infections (for example, HIV encephalomyelopathy) and aspects of ischaemic brain injury.