The scientific dogma that multiple sclerosis (MS) is a disease caused by a single pathogenic mechanism has been challenged recently by the heterogeneity observed in MS lesions and the realization that not all patterns of demyelination can be modeled by autoimmune-triggered mechanisms. To evaluate the contribution of local tumor necrosis factor (TNF) ligand/receptor signaling pathways to MS immunopathogenesis we have analyzed disease pathology in central nervous system-expressing TNF transgenic mice, with or without p55 or p75TNF receptors, using combined in situ terminal deoxynucleotidyl transferase-mediated dUTP-biotin nick-end labeling and cell identification techniques. We demonstrate that local production of TNF by central nervous system glia potently and selectively induces oligodendrocyte apoptosis and myelin vacuolation in the context of an intact blood-brain barrier and absence of immune cell infiltration into the central nervous system parenchyma. Interestingly, primary demyelination then develops in a classical manner in the presence of large numbers of recruited phagocytic macrophages, possibly the result of concomitant pro-inflammatory effects of TNF in the central nervous system, and lesions progress into acute or chronic MS-type plaques with axonal damage, focal blood-brain barrier disruption, and considerable oligodendrocyte loss. Both the cytotoxic and inflammatory effects of TNF were abrogated in mice genetically deficient for the p55TNF receptor demonstrating a dominant role for p55TNF receptor-signaling pathways in TNF-mediated pathology. These results demonstrate that aberrant local TNF/p55TNF receptor signaling in the central nervous system can have a potentially major role in the aetiopathogenesis of MS demyelination, particularly in MS subtypes in which oligodendrocyte death is a primary pathological feature, and provide new models for studying the basic mechanisms underlying oligodendrocyte and myelin loss.