HIV-associated dementia complex is a serious disabling disease characterized by cognitive, behavioral and motor dysfunction. Basal ganglia involvement in HIV-1 infection may be responsible for some of the psychomotor symptoms associated with HIV dementia. The objectives of the present study were to determine: (1) whether gp120 and Tat produce striatal toxicity, and (2) whether gp120 and Tat show synergistic toxicity in the striatum. In these studies, the recombinant proteins gp120, Tat, or saline (0.9%) were stereotaxically injected in the striatum of adult male rats. The striatal sections were evaluated for area of tissue loss (Cresyl-violet stained sections) and the number of GFAP immunoreactive cells 7 days after the injections. Doses of gp120 250 ng/microl or higher and Tat 5 microg/microl or higher produced a significant area of tissue loss and significantly increased the number of GFAP reactive cells. We found no toxicity in animals treated with immunoabsorbed gp120 or Tat. Combined gp120 (100 ng/microl)+Tat (1 microg/microl) injections into the rat striatum significantly increased the area of tissue loss and altered morphology and increased number of GFAP reactive cells, as compared to controls. Thus, the present results suggest the involvement of gp120 and Tat in striatal toxicity and provide a model for further studies to fully characterize their role in HIV-1 toxicity and to develop therapeutic strategies for HIV-1 associated dementia complex.