AIMS: To demonstrate, immunohistochemically, p53 protein expression in a selection of central nervous system tumours; to investigate the relation between p53 expression and that of the proliferation related antigen, PCNA. METHODS: Surgical specimens from 86 central nervous system tumours were routinely fixed, paraffin wax embedded, and immunostained with a monoclonal (PAb 1801) and a policlonal antibody (CM1) p53 protein and a monoclonal antibody against PCNA (PC10). Normal brain samples obtained at necropsy and 10 surgically obtained samples of gliotic brain parenchyma were also immunostained. RESULTS: p53 protein expression was observed in 35 of 86 brain tumours, suggesting frequent p53 gene mutation. p53 protein alterations were associated with all grades of malignancy in tumours displaying solely astrocytic differentiation, with the exception of pilocytic astrocytomas. In those showing oligodendroglial or ependymal differentiation they appeared to be restricted almost to only high grade lesions. No p53 immunoreactivity was observed in normal or gliotic brain tissue; p53 altered expression was not related to the percentage of PCNA labelled cells. CONCLUSIONS: The use of sophisticated gene amplification techniques or highly sensitive immunohistochemical methods might be useful in distinguishing between reactive and neoplastic astrocytic lesions, and in the identification of malignant progression in other non-astrocytic glial tumours. Tumours with very similar histogenetic differentiation features might actually be a genetically heterogeneous group with possible different clinical courses.