We investigated the spread of glycoprotein gE (gE)-negative pseudorabies virus (PRV) and its rescued 'wild-type' strain into and within the central nervous system (CNS) of 3- and 10-week-old pigs. This is the first study that demonstrates PRV invasion of the porcine CNS via the synaptically linked neurons of the olfactory and trigeminal routes and that demonstrates the role of gE in this invasion. After intranasal inoculation with high doses of virus, gE-negative PRV replicated less efficiently in peripheral tissues. The titres of the gE-negative virus in the oropharyngeal mucosa, olfactory epithelium, draining lymph nodes and trigeminal ganglion were approximately 100-fold lower in 3-week-old pigs and 10-fold lower in 10-week-old pigs than titres of the 'wild-type' virus. In contrast to the 'wild-type' virus, titres of the gE-negative virus were very low or undetectable in the olfactory bulb, brain stem and other tissues of the CNS. Viral antigen of rescued 'wild-type' PRV and of gE-negative PRV was detected immunohistochemically in the olfactory epithelium and in neurons of the trigeminal ganglion, and also in the olfactory and trigeminal axons leading towards the CNS. But, in contrast to 'wild-type' virus, no viral antigen of the gE-negative virus was detected in second- or third-order neurons in the olfactory bulb or in the brain stem. We conclude that gE-negative PRV can infect first-order neurons of the olfactory and trigeminal routes and is able to spread via their axons towards the CNS. Yet, gE-negative PRV has a greatly reduced capacity to infect second- or third-order neurons. Finally, we report lateral spread of 'wild-type' PRV in the trigeminal ganglion, i.e. nonsynaptic transport from neuron to neuron. Possible mechanisms that could explain the reduced levels of the gE-negative virus in the CNS are discussed.