Experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis (EAE) is an autoimmune disease mediated by CD4+ T cells. It is characterized by mononuclear cell infiltration around the small blood vessels in the central nervous system (CNS). Previous investigations have found that apoptosis is associated with the occurrence and development of autoimmune disease, and that mononuclear cell apoptosis and clearance from the CNS is one of the repair mechanisms of EAE. Tripterygium wilfordii glycoside (TWP) is an organic matter isolated from Tripterygium wilfordii, which has anti‑inflammatory and immunosuppressive effects. In the present study, male Lewis rats were randomly divided into a normal control, EAE and TWP groups. Rats in EAE and TWP groups received injections of emulsified EAE antigen (myelin protein) at two points on the footpad while control group received PBS. The TWP group was then treated with TWP daily for 21 days. Symptoms and nerve function scores were observed and evaluated. Specimens of blood, brain and spinal cord were collected for further pathological examination, Tunel assay, ELISA and immunohistochemistry were performed to examine the effect of TWP on the onset of EAE, and changes in CNS inflammatory infiltration, cell apoptosis, and the expression of nuclear factor (NF)‑κB P65 and interleukin (IL)‑2. The results showed that the TWP treatment group exhibited decreased EAE and delayed onset, compared with the control. The clinical symptoms were significantly reduced and alleviation of inflammatory cell infiltration was observed. Compared with the EAE group, a higher inflammatory cell apoptotic rate, and reduced serum levels of IL‑2 and NF‑κB p65‑positive cells were observed in the TWP treatment group. Therefore, TWP effectively inhibited EAE via the inhibition of CNS inflammatory cell infiltration, enhancement of inflammatory cell apoptosis, and downregulation of the expression of NF‑κB and IL‑2.