We performed an immunoperoxidase study on muscle biopsy specimens from 19 patients with polymyositis who were seropositive for human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) (21 specimens) and 5 HIV-seronegative patients with polymyositis and compared the findings. A quantitative analysis of T cells and T-cell subsets, B cells, natural killer cells, interleukin-2 receptor-positive cells, and macrophages was performed on serial sections from all the specimens. Localization of major histocompatibility complex (MHC)-I and -II antigens, alpha and gamma interferon, and HIV antigens (p24, gp120, and gp41) was performed using specific antisera. In specimens from HIV-positive and seronegative patients, the predominant cell population was CD8+ cells and macrophages invading or surrounding healthy muscle fibers that expressed MHC-I antigen on their surface. The endomysial infiltrates in specimens from HIV-positive patients differed from those seen in specimens from the seronegative patients only by a significant reduction of the CD4+ cells (12.6 +/- 3.2% versus 21.1 +/- 4.2%). HIV antigens were seen in occasional interstitial mononuclear cells (but not in muscle fibers) in 6 of the 21 specimens from HIV-positive patients. Interferon was not localized. We conclude that the development of HIV-associated polymyositis does not appear to be related to direct infection of the muscle fibers by HIV but rather is due to a T-cell-mediated and MHC-I-restricted cytotoxic process, perhaps triggered by HIV. Because this immunopathological mechanism is common in both HIV-associated polymyositis and polymyositis alone, it is suggested that viruses may also be responsible in triggering polymyositis.