The clinical manifestations of AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) often include neuropsychiatric and neurological deficits, including early memory loss and progressive dementia. HIV (human immunodeficiency virus), the aetiological agent of AIDS, is probably carried by infected macrophages in the central nervous system. The virus enters cells by binding its envelope glycoprotein gp120 to the CD4 antigen present on brain and immune cells. From the data reported in this paper, we now suggest that the neuronal deficits associated with HIV may not be entirely a result of infectivity, but that gp120 shed from HIV could directly produce the neuropathology as a result of its interference with endogenous neurotrophic substances. It is known that an analogue of a sequence contained in vasoactive intestinal peptide (VIP) occurs in all known sequenced gp120 isolates and that VIP is important for neuronal survival in cell culture. Here we show that purified gp120 from two diverse HIV isolates and a recombinant gp120 from a third isolate were all potent in specifically producing significant neuronal cell death in dissociated hippocampal cultures derived from fetal mice, and that this could be reduced by monoclonal antibodies against the murine CD4 antigen and completely antagonized by VIP.