This study was designed to assess whether development of the central nervous system (CNS) is delayed in victims of the sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). We selected the parameter of myelination because it is a continuously changing and readily accessible marker of CNS development in the SIDS age-range. We assessed myelination blindly in 61 SIDS and 89 autopsy controls. In 62 sites the degree of myelination was visually graded in myelin-stained histological sections on an ordinal scale of 0-4 using the inferior cerebellar peduncle as an internal standard of degree 3. Cases were stratified by postconceptional age at death and SIDS and controls were compared with respect to myelin degree at each site. Significantly delayed myelination (p less than 0.05) occurred in the SIDS group in 25 of the 62 sites examined. Hypomyelination affected fiber systems in which myelination is initiated before or after birth and which myelinate with different tempos and preferentially affect pyramidal and cerebellar (somatomotor) and prefrontal-temporal-limbic (visceromotor) systems. Hypomyelination was not associated with individual clinicopathologic variables in the SIDS group. Somatic growth and brain weight were significantly greater in SIDS than controls. Therefore, we suggest that SIDS is associated with a developmental CNS disorder. Although delayed CNS myelination most likely shares a common antecedent with sudden death and is not its cause, the role of somato- and viscero-motor systems in central cardiorespiratory control and arousal warrants further analysis in SIDS.