To evaluate the presence and distribution of central nervous system infection by human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1), we used immunohistochemical methods to map the HIV-1 p24 core protein in the brains of 55 autopsied patients with acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). In a subset of 40 of these patients who had undergone antemortem neurological evaluation of the AIDS dementia complex (ADC), we analyzed the relation between the severities of the viral infection and clinical dysfunction. Viral antigen was detected in macrophages and cells with morphological and immunohistochemical characteristics of microglia as well as multinucleated cells. The distribution of antigen-positive cells preferentially involved certain deep brain structures, especially the globus pallidus, other basal ganglia nuclei, and the central white matter. Overall, the presence and frequency of infected cells were highly correlated with the histological findings of multinucleated-cell encephalitis and in general with the clinical ADC stage. However, infection was often more limited than might be "anticipated" from the severity of patients' clinical dysfunction: Only 61% of patients with at least ADC stage 1 had detectable antigen and of these only approximately 30% of the brain sections were antigen positive. These results suggest a pathogenetic model of ADC where virus- or cell-coded toxins amplify the effect of limited brain infection.