The development of autoimmune disease is accompanied by the acquired recognition of new self-determinants, a process commonly referred to as determinant spreading. In this study, we addressed the question of whether determinant spreading is pathogenic for progression of chronic-relapsing experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis (EAE), a disease with many similarities to multiple sclerosis (MS). Our approach involved a systematic epitope mapping of responses to myelin proteolipid protein (PLP) as well as assaying responses to known encephalitogenic determinants of myelin basic protein (MBP 87-89) and myelin oligodendrocyte glycoprotein (MOG 92-106) at various times after induction of EAE in (SWR X SJL)F1 mice immunized with PLP 139-151. We found that the order in which new determinants are recognized during the course of disease follows a predictable sequential pattern. At monthly intervals after immunization with p139-151, responses to PLP 249-273, MBP 87-99, and PLP 137-198 were sequentially accumulated in al mice examined. Three lines of evidence showed that determinant spreading is pathogenic for disease progression: (a) spreading determinants mediate passive transfer of acute EAE in naive (SWR X SJL)F1 recipients; (b) an invariant relationship exists between the development of relapse/progression and the spreading of recognition to new immunodominant encephalitogenic determinants; and (c) after EAE onset, the induction of peptide-specific tolerance to spreading but not to nonspreading encephalitogenic determinants prevents subsequent progression of EAE. Thus, the predictability of acquired self-determinant recognition provides a basis for sequential determinant-specific therapeutic intervention after onset of the autoimmune disease process.