In rare cases measles virus (MV) induces subacute sclerosing panencephalitis (SSPE) or measles inclusion body encephalitis (MIBE), two lethal diseases of the human central nervous system. MV transcripts present in the brains of two SSPE patients and one MIBE patient were analyzed by quantitative Northern blots. In all three cases the transcripts from the first MV gene were relatively abundant, amounting to about one-tenth of that in lytically infected cells. However, the quantity of transcripts decreased sharply for each subsequent MV gene, arriving at 200-fold lower levels for the fifth MV gene. In comparison gradients of transcript levels are more shallow in either lytically or persistently infected cultured cells, where the transcripts of the fifth MV gene are only about five times less abundant than those of the first. These altered ratios of mRNAs appear to be typical for persistent MV brain infections and most likely lead to reduced expression of the viral envelope proteins, encoded by distal MV genes, at the surface of brain cells. This could account for the lack of viral budding and allow persistent MV infections to elude immune surveillance.