Neuromyelitis optica (also known as Devic's disease) is an idiopathic, severe, demyelinating disease of the central nervous system that preferentially affects the optic nerve and spinal cord. Neuromyelitis optica has a worldwide distribution, poor prognosis, and has long been thought of as a variant of multiple sclerosis; however, clinical, laboratory, immunological, and pathological characteristics that distinguish it from multiple sclerosis are now recognised. The presence of a highly specific serum autoantibody marker (NMO-IgG) further differentiates neuromyelitis optica from multiple sclerosis and has helped to define a neuromyelitis optica spectrum of disorders. NMO-IgG reacts with the water channel aquaporin 4. Data suggest that autoantibodies to aquaporin 4 derived from peripheral B cells cause the activation of complement, inflammatory demyelination, and necrosis that is seen in neuromyelitis optica. The knowledge gained from further assessment of the exact role of NMO-IgG in the pathogenesis of neuromyelitis optica will provide a foundation for rational therapeutic trials for this rapidly disabling disease.