Excessive signalling by excitatory neurotransmitters like glutamate and ATP can be deleterious to neurons and oligodendroglia, and cause disease. In particular, sustained activation of α-amino-3-hydroxy-5-methyl-4-isoxazolepropionic acid (AMPA), kainate and N-methyl-d-aspartate (NMDA) receptors damages oligodendrocytes, a feature that depends entirely on Ca2+ overload of the cytoplasm and that can be initiated by disruption of glutamate homeostasis. Thus, inhibition of glutamate uptake by activated microglia can compromise glutamate homeostasis and induce oligodendrocyte excitotoxicity. Moreover, non-lethal, brief activation of kainate receptors in oligodendrocytes rapidly sensitizes these cells to complement attack as a consequence of oxidative stress. In addition to glutamate, ATP signalling can directly trigger oligodendrocyte excitotoxicity via activation of Ca2+-permeable P2X7 purinergic receptors, which mediates ischaemic damage to white matter (WM) and causes lesions that are reminiscent of multiple sclerosis (MS) plaques. Conversely, blockade of P2X7 receptors attenuates post-ischaemic injury to WM and ameliorates chronic experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis, a model of MS. Importantly, P2X7 expression is elevated in normal-appearing WM in patients with MS, suggesting that signalling through this receptor in oligodendrocytes may be enhanced in this disease. Altogether, these observations reveal novel mechanisms by which altered glutamate and ATP homeostasis can trigger oligodendrocyte death. This review aims at summarizing current knowledge about the mechanisms leading to WM damage as a consequence of altered neurotransmitter signalling, and their relevance to disease. This knowledge will generate new therapeutic avenues to treat more efficiently acute and chronic WM pathology.