Multiple sclerosis (MS) is the most common chronic inflammatory, demyelinating and neurodegenerative disease of the central nervous system in young adults. This disorder is a heterogeneous, multifactorial, immune-mediated disease that is influenced by both genetic and environmental factors. In most patients, reversible episodes of neurological dysfunction lasting several days or weeks characterize the initial stages of the disease (that is, clinically isolated syndrome and relapsing–remitting MS). Over time, irreversible clinical and cognitive deficits develop. A minority of patients have a progressive disease course from the onset. The pathological hallmark of MS is the formation of demyelinating lesions in the brain and spinal cord, which can be associated with neuro-axonal damage. Focal lesions are thought to be caused by the infiltration of immune cells, including T cells, B cells and myeloid cells, into the central nervous system parenchyma, with associated injury. MS is associated with a substantial burden on society owing to the high cost of the available treatments and poorer employment prospects and job retention for patients and their caregivers. © 2018, Springer Nature Limited.