The hallmark of the brain pathology in multiple sclerosis is the white matter plaque, characterized by myelin destruction and oligodendrocyte loss. To examine the role that cell death plays in the development of MS lesions, we used the in situ TUNEL technique, a method that sensitively detects DNA fragmentation associated with death at the single cell level. We found that patchy areas within acute MS lesions have massive numbers of inflammatory and glial cells undergoing cell death. The punched out areas of some long-standing chronic lesions also had labeled glial cells showing that the attack was not a single event. Immunocytochemical identification of the dying cells with glial specific marker co-labeling showed that 14-40% were the myelin-sustaining oligodendroglial cell. Confocal microscopic evaluation of fluorescein-labeled TUNEL positive cells revealed nuclei with morphologic characteristics of apoptosis, and electrophoresed MS brain DNA produced a ladder characteristic of apoptotic DNA cleavage confirming that substantial numbers of labeled cells, but not necessarily all, were dying by apoptotic mechanisms rather than cell necrosis. Companion studies using a marker for cell proliferation on MS lesions revealed that unexpectedly large populations of perivascular inflammatory cells and parenchymal glial cells had entered the cell proliferation cycle. These findings establish that two opposing glial cell responses - relentless cell death and coincident brisk cellular proliferation - are important features of MS pathology. In the end, however, glial cell loss prevails, and we suspect apoptosis may be the critical death mechanism responsible for the depletion of myelin observed in this condition.