Progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy (PML) is caused by JC virus (JCV) infection of the central nervous system (CNS) in immunosuppressed patients. The immunopathogenesis of this chronic encephalitis is unknown. Because major histocompatibility (MHC) class I and class II antigens are important in modulating the immune response and viral clearance, we examined the tissue expression of MHC molecules in relation to CNS damage and presence of virus. By immunocytochemical staining, both MHC class I and class II antigens were expressed at high levels within PML lesions. Beta-2 microglobulin (beta-2m) was present on endothelial cells and JCV-infected oligodendroglia within the lesions. Also, many astrocytes with bizarre morphology expressed MHC class I antigens. In histologically normal regions of PML brains expression of beta-2m was noted only on endothelial cells. Expression of MHC class II also was focused within demyelinating lesions and was restricted to macrophages/microglia and occasional endothelial cells. When compared to other viral encephalitides (e.g. human immunodeficiency virus) these findings suggest that intra-CNS immune response to JCV is appropriate for antigenic presentation; however, the absence of responsive systemic T-cells may lead to chronic viral infection with progressive neuropathology.