We have developed a strategy to identify the disease-relevant antigens in a chronic inflammatory CNS disease exhibiting intrathecally expressed oligoclonal IgG. Using subacute sclerosing panencephalitis (SSPE), a chronic inflammatory measles virus infection of the brain as a model system, we constructed a phage display antibody Fab library from the amplified products of IgG expressed in the brain. Selection of the library against measles virus-infected cell lysates yielded four distinct Fabs which, by ELISA and by immunostaining, reacted specifically with measles virus-infected cells. Three Fabs immunoprecipitated a 72 kDa protein from infected cell cultures corresponding to the measles virus phosphoprotein. The fourth Fab immunoprecipitated and recognized by immunoblotting a 60 kDa protein corresponding to the measles virus nucleoprotein. The results demonstrate that functional antibodies from an inflammatory CNS disease can be expressed in bacteria and used to identify disease-relevant antigens. This approach could be applied to chronic inflammatory CNS diseases of unknown cause such as multiple sclerosis.