The relationship between CD8 lymphocyte phenotypic alterations and virological parameters was studied in 47 asymptomatic subjects with human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1) infection and CD4 T cell counts above 400/microliters. CD8 subsets were examined by means of three-color flow cytometry, using an extensive panel of monoclonal antibody combinations. Virological parameters were measured by both end-point dilution culture of peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMCs) and plasma and branched-DNA (bDNA) signal amplification of plasma HIV RNA. Whereas HIV-infected patients had a near-normal CD4 cell count (mean, 782 cells/microliter), several subsets of activated CD8 cells were markedly expanded relative to values in 23 HIV-seronegative controls. The PBMC cultures were positive in 38 cases and plasma HIV RNA was detected in 31. The percentage of CD4 cells correlated negatively with both cellular viremia and plasma HIV RNA levels. Conversely, a positive correlation was observed between viral load and the percentage of CD8 cells. Among CD8 lymphocytes, the CD38+CD8 and HLA-DR+CD8 subsets correlated best with viral load. Three-color analysis showed that the subpopulations involved in this relationship were CD38+HLA-DR+, CD38+CD28-, HLA-DR+CD28+, HLA-DR+CD57-, CD38+CD57-, CD38+CD45RO+, and HLA-DR+CD45RO+. Our data provide the first evidence that viral load correlates with subsets of activated CD8 lymphocytes in asymptomatic HIV-infected subjects who have near-normal numbers of CD4 lymphocytes.