Neuronal degeneration after traumatic injury to the central nervous system (CNS) can be reduced by active immunization or passive transfer of T cells against CNS-associated myelin antigens. We propose that a protective autoimmunity is evoked by CNS insult when non-immunological local protective mechanisms cannot adequately buffer the injury-induced toxicity. The ability of a particular strain to develop a protective autoimmune response appears to be inversely related to its susceptibility to autoimmune disease. We also propose that vaccination with specific CNS-derived 'safe' (non-pathogenic) peptides after traumatic CNS insult, and possibly at any stage of chronic neurodegenerative disease, can be used to boost the protective autoimmunity and thereby to reduce further injury-induced damage. Such therapeutic vaccination ensures that the augmented beneficial autoimmunity will be free of accompanying disease.