An updated histological classification system for multiple sclerosis lesions

Acta Neuropathol. 2017 Jan;133(1):13-24. doi: 10.1007/s00401-016-1653-y. Epub 2016 Dec 17.


Multiple sclerosis is a complex and heterogeneous, most likely autoimmune, demyelinating disease of the central nervous system (CNS). Although a number of histological classification systems for CNS lesions have been used by different groups in recent years, no uniform classification exists. In this paper, we propose a simple and unifying classification of MS lesions incorporating many elements of earlier histological systems that aims to provide guidelines for neuropathologists and researchers studying MS lesions to allow for better comparison of different studies performed with MS tissue, and to aid in understanding the pathogenesis of the disease. Based on the presence/absence and distribution of macrophages/microglia (inflammatory activity) and the presence/absence of ongoing demyelination (demyelinating activity), we suggest differentiating between active, mixed active/inactive, and inactive lesions with or without ongoing demyelination. Active lesions are characterized by macrophages/microglia throughout the lesion area, whereas mixed active/inactive lesions have a hypocellular lesion center with macrophages/microglia limited to the lesion border. Inactive lesions are almost completely lacking macrophages/microglia. Active and mixed active/inactive lesions can be further subdivided into lesions with ongoing myelin destruction (demyelinating lesions) and lesions in which the destruction of myelin has ceased, but macrophages are still present (post-demyelinating lesions). This distinction is based on the presence or absence of myelin degradation products within the cytoplasm of macrophages/microglia. For this classification of MS lesions, identification of myelin with histological stains [such as luxol fast blue-PAS] or by immunohistochemistry using antibodies against myelin basic-protein (MBP) or proteolipid-protein (PLP), as well as, detection of macrophages/microglia by, e.g., anti-CD68 is sufficient. Active and demyelinating lesions may be further subdivided into the early and late demyelinating lesions. The former is defined by the presence in macrophages of major and small molecular weight myelin proteins, such as cyclic nucleotide diphosphoesterase (CNP), myelin oligodendrocyte glycoprotein (MOG), or myelin-associated protein (MAG), whereas macrophages in the latter demonstrate merely the presence of the major myelin proteins MBP or PLP. We discuss the histological features and staining techniques required to classify MS lesions, and, in addition, describe the histological hallmarks of cortical pathology and diffuse white matter changes, as well as of remyelination.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Humans
  • Macrophages / immunology
  • Macrophages / pathology
  • Microglia / immunology
  • Microglia / pathology
  • Multiple Sclerosis / classification*
  • Multiple Sclerosis / diagnostic imaging
  • Multiple Sclerosis / immunology
  • Multiple Sclerosis / pathology*
  • White Matter / diagnostic imaging
  • White Matter / immunology
  • White Matter / pathology