Blood–brain barrier (BBB) hyperpermeability in multiple sclerosis (MS) is associated with lesion pathogenesis and has been linked to pathology in microvascular tight junctions (TJs). This study quantifies the uneven distribution of TJ pathology and its association with BBB leakage. Frozen sections from plaque and normal-appearing white matter (NAWM) in 14 cases were studied together with white matter from six neurological and five normal controls. Using single and double immunofluorescence and confocal microscopy, the TJ-associated protein zonula occludens-1 (ZO-1) was examined across lesion types and tissue categories, and in relation to fibrinogen leakage. Confocal image data sets were analysed for 2198 MS and 1062 control vessels. Significant differences in the incidence of TJ abnormalities were detected between the different lesion types in MS and between MS and control white matter. These were frequent in oil-red O (ORO)+ active plaques, affecting 42% of vessel segments, but less frequent in ORO− inactive plaques (23%), NAWM (13%), and normal (3.7%) and neurological controls (8%). A similar pattern was found irrespective of the vessel size, supporting a causal role for diffusible inflammatory mediators. In both NAWM and inactive lesions, dual labelling showed that vessels with the most TJ abnormality also showed most fibrinogen leakage. This was even more pronounced in active lesions, where 41% of vessels in the highest grade for TJ alteration showed severe leakage. It is concluded that disruption of TJs in MS, affecting both paracellular and transcellular paths, contributes to BBB leakage. TJ abnormality and BBB leakage in inactive lesions suggests either failure of TJ repair or a continuing pathological process. In NAWM, it suggests either pre-lesional change or secondary damage. Clinically inapparent TJ pathology has prognostic implications and should be considered when planning disease-modifying therapy. Copyright © 2003 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.