The expression of a battery of adhesion-related molecules and cytokines was investigated by immunocytochemistry in the central nervous system (CNS) of SJL/J mice sensitized for experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis (EAE). These molecules consisted of the ligands MECA-325, intercellular adhesion molecule-1, and major histocompatibility complex molecules I and II, plus the receptors lymphocyte function-associated antigen-1, CD8, and CD4. The cytokines comprised interferon-gamma and tumor necrosis factor-alpha. EAE was induced by the adoptive transfer of myelin basic protein-sensitized lymphocytes. MECA-325, a marker for murine high endothelial venules in lymph node tissue, was absent from normal CNS tissue, was expressed at low levels on venules 24 to 48 hours before the onset of clinical signs, rose to maximal levels during acute disease, decreased to preclinical levels during remissions, and rose again during relapses. Intercellular adhesion molecule-1, major histocompatibility antigen-I, and major histocompatibility antigen-II showed similar fluctuations around CNS vessels. The receptors lymphocyte function-associated antigen-1 and CD4 fluctuated in parallel with the above molecules, whereas CD8 remained at a similar low level. Interferon-gamma was present during the acute, remitting, and relapsing phases and was localized to inflammatory cells, whereas tumor necrosis factor occurred at low levels only. Thus, several molecules associated with lymphocyte traffic in lymphoid tissue are selectively expressed in a stage-specific manner within the target organ, the CNS, during EAE. This suggests that the CNS may act as an ancillary organ of the immune system, and that cellular traffic into the CNS during EAE is related to the fluctuating expression of several distinct adhesion-related molecules, frequently co-expressed on the same vessel. The findings may have relevance to the sequence of events in the developing CNS lesion of multiple sclerosis.