To investigate whether apoptosis is involved in the fate of oligodendrocytes in chronic multiple sclerosis lesions, the pro-apoptotic molecules fas and tumor necrosis factor receptors and the anti-apoptotic molecule bcl-2 were examined by immunohistochemistry, and DNA fragmentation was assessed by an end labeling technique. Fas and both tumor necrosis factor receptors were preferentially expressed on oligodendrocytes in multiple sclerosis lesions, this phenotype being more evident at the lesion edge. The ligand for fasL, was constitutively present at high levels on microglia. The anti-apoptotic molecule bcl-2 was selectively expressed on oligodendrocytes in silent lesions and on astrocytes in active lesions. These molecules were also detected in control material, albeit at lower levels. In chronic active lesions, a few inflammatory cells displayed fas reactivity, whereas the majority expressed bcl-2. DNA fragmentation was found in a number of infiltrating cells and some microglia, whereas, with one possible exception, oligodendrocytes showed no evidence of apoptosis. Thus, while apoptosis is involved in the elimination of infiltrating cells, it plays little or no role in oligodendrocyte depletion in multiple sclerosis, a process that may be related to a lytic pathway. In addition, microglia constitutively displayed the ligand for fas, and appeared to be the major effector cell population in the central nervous system.