To evaluate the spectrum of neuromyelitis optica (NMO), including characteristics of the index events (optic neuritis [ON]) and myelitis), neuroimaging, CSF, and serologic studies, and to evaluate the long-term course. Review of 71 patients with NMO evaluated at the Mayo Clinic between 1950 and 1997. NMO was either monophasic or relapsing. Patients with a monophasic course (n = 23) usually presented with rapidly sequential index events (median 5 days) with moderate recovery. Most with a relapsing course (n = 48) had an extended interval between index events (median 166 days) followed within 3 years by clusters of severe relapses isolated to the optic nerves and spinal cord. Most relapsing patients developed severe disability in a stepwise manner, and one-third died because of respiratory failure. Features of NMO distinct from "typical" MS included >50 cells/mm3 in CSF (often polymorphonuclear), normal initial brain MRI, and lesions extending over three or more vertebral segments on spinal cord MRI. Clinical, laboratory, and imaging features generally distinguish neuromyelitis optica from MS. Patients with relapsing optic neuritis and myelitis may have neuromyelitis optica rather than MS. Patients with a relapsing course of neuromyelitis optica have a poor prognosis and frequently develop respiratory failure during attacks of cervical myelitis.