Multiple sclerosis is an autoimmune disease of the central nervous system (CNS) that is initiated when self-reactive T cells enter the brain and become locally activated after encountering their specific nervous antigens. When and where the disease-relevant antigen encounters occur is unclear. Here we combined fluorescently labeled nuclear factor of activated T cells (NFAT) with histone protein H2B to create a broadly applicable molecular sensor for intravital imaging of T cell activation. In experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis, an animal model for multiple sclerosis, we report that effector T cells entering the CNS become activated after short contacts with leptomeningeal phagocytes. During established disease, the activation process is extended to the depth of the CNS parenchyma, where the cells form contacts with microglia and recruited phagocytes. We show that it is the activation processes during the preclinical phase rather than during established disease that are essential for the intensity and duration of the disease bout.