The pathophysiology of multiple sclerosis is reviewed, with emphasis on the axonal conduction properties underlying the production of symptoms, and the course of the disease. The major cause of the negative symptoms during relapses (e.g. paralysis, blindness and numbness) is conduction block, caused largely by demyelination and inflammation, and possibly by defects in synaptic transmission and putative circulating blocking factors. Recovery from symptoms during remissions is due mainly to the restoration of axonal function, either by remyelination, the resolution of inflammation, or the restoration of conduction to axons which persist in the demyelinated state. Conduction in the latter axons shows a number of deficits, particularly with regard to the conduction of trains of impulses and these contribute to weakness and sensory problems. The mechanisms underlying the sensitivity of symptoms to changes in body temperature (Uhthoff's phenomenon) are discussed. The origin of ‘positive’ symptoms, such as tingling sensations, are described, including the generation of ectopic trains and bursts of impulses, ephaptic interactions between axons and/or neurons, the triggering of additional, spurious impulses by the transmission of normal impulses, the mechanosensitivity of axons underlying movement–induced sensations (e.g. Lhermitte's phenomenon) and pain. The clinical course of the disease is discussed, together with its relationship to the evolution of lesions as revealed by magnetic resonance imaging and spectroscopy. The earliest detectable event in the development of most new lesions is a breakdown of the blood–brain barrier in association with inflammation. Inflammation resolves after approximately one month, at which time there is an improvement in the symptoms. Demyelination occurs during the inflammatory phase of the lesion. An important mechanism determining persistent neurological deficit is axonal degeneration, although persistent conduction block arising from the failure of repair mechanisms probably also contributes.