The distribution of measles virus (MV) antigen and genomic RNA in the central nervous system (CNS) in 10 cases of subacute sclerosing panencephalitis (SSPE) was determined using optimized immunocytochemistry and in situ hybridization techniques. As in previous reports neurons and oligodendrocytes were found to be the most frequently infected cells. It was confirmed that MV infection in neuronal processes was predominantly dendritic but there was also some evidence suggestive of occasional axonal involvement, a finding confirmed by electron microscopy. In addition MV genomic RNA was detected in neuronal processes, in some cases in the absence of demonstrable MV antigen. The relationship between myelin destruction and oligodendrocytic infection suggested that the demyelination may be solely the result of virus infection. A possible correlation between viral distribution and form and the clinical duration of disease was examined. Viral antigen and genome were equally abundant in the cerebral cortex in most short duration cases (<6 months). However, in two of these cases viral RNA but not antigen was detected in the spinal cord. In long duration cases (>36 months) viral RNA was abundant in all areas of the CNS examined, frequently in the absence of demonstrable antigen. These findings may suggest viral spread in a cephalo-caudal direction, probably by transneuronal spread.