Cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) RNA levels were measured with the Nucleic Acid Sequence-Based Amplification (NASBA) assay to determine the relationship with neurological status; 37 subjects with HIV dementia (HIV-D) were compared with 77 with HIV with minor neurological signs (HIV-MCMD) and 93 neurologically normal HIV-seropositive individuals (HIV-NML). The NASBA assay had a lower limit of detection of 100 copies per milliliter. Mean CSF log HIV RNA levels were significantly higher in those with dementia after adjusting for CD4 count and were correlated with dementia severity. Plasma levels did not distinguish comparably immunosuppressed subjects with or without dementia. CSF and plasma RNA levels were significantly intercorrelated for subjects with CD4 counts <200/mm3 and also correlated inversely with CSF beta2-microglobulin. CSF RNA levels were independent of CSF pleocytosis or antiretroviral exposure. Brain RNA levels were consistently higher than CSF but correlated with CSF values for dementia subjects. The NASBA assay can be used reliably to determine HIV RNA levels in CSF, brain, and plasma samples. CSF HIV RNA may be a surrogate marker for brain infection, based on the observed correlation with brain levels. The association between plasma HIV RNA and CSF levels of HIV and beta2-microglobulin suggests that both viral load and CNS immune activation are important determinants of neurological disease.