Mechanisms involved in the pathogenesis of the AIDS-dementia complex are still unclear. The dichotomy between a small number of HIV-infected cells in the brain and their marked dysfunction could be related to a cellular amplification and/or activation of cerebral viral load by several cytokines. This link between cytokines and viral load could play a role in the generation of the clinical dementia syndrome. We have studied cerebral levels of transforming growth factor-beta1 and interferon-alpha, both in the mild and severe AIDS-dementia complex and also compared these cytokines with HIV RNA load in patients with different degrees of dementia. Our data indicate that production of different cytokines characterized the expression of clinical dementia. In the mild AIDS-dementia complex, there was a significant inverse correlation between interferon-alpha and transforming growth factor-beta1 (r = - 0.743; p < 0.001), and HIV-RNA was present in inverse proportion to transforming growth factor beta1 (r = - 0.751; p < 0.001). In patients with severe AIDS-dementia, transforming growth factor-beta1 was undetectable, while interferon-alpha level were higher than in mild AIDS dementia and correlated positively to cerebral HIV-RNA. No significant difference was evident between these cytokines in the serum of ADC patients and in the control samples. Our study suggests that a relationship is possible between productive HIV infection in the cerebral nervous system and a heterogenous and different expression of the immune response via a complex interaction of cytokines with a differential modulation of the dementia phenotype.