Recent studies of human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1) encephalitis have shown that in addition to well established white matter damage, the neocortex shows thinning, loss of large neurons and dendritic damage. In order to identify neuronal populations affected in HIV encephalitis and to determine how neuronal damage relates to the severity of HIV infection within the nervous system, we quantified parvalbumin (PV+) and neurofilament (NF+) immunoreactive neurons in the frontal cortex and hippocampus. We found that in the neocortex, the density of NF+ and PV+ neurons was independent of severity of HIV encephalitis, and therefore changes in these neuronal subsets did not account for previously reported neuronal loss. However, neuritic processes of PV+ neurons were fragmented, atrophic and in some cases distended. In contrast to the frontal cortex, there was a trend toward decreased density of PV+ neurons in the hippocampus which only reached significance in the CA3 layer where there was a 50-90% decrease in PV+ neurons. This decrease was closely correlated with the severity of HIV encephalitis. Double-label immunocytochemical analysis confirmed neuritic damage to interneurons. These results suggest that HIV encephalitis differentially involves specific subpopulations of neurons. Since direct HIV infection of neuronal cells was not detected, damage to PV+ cells and fibers may be indirectly mediated by cytokines released by HIV-infected microglia.