To combat infection and inhibit viral replication of HIV in the brain, antiretroviral agents must cross the blood-brain barrier (BBB). An in vitro BBB model consisting of bovine brain microvessel endothelial cells grown on porous filters was used to study and compare the transport of nevirapine, a potent and selective nonnucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitor, with other HIV antiretroviral agents currently in use for the treatment of HIV infection. These included nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors (didanosine, stavudine, zalcitabine, zidovudine), a nonnucleoside reverse transcriptase (delaviridine), and protease inhibitors (indinavir, saquinavir, VX-478). Nevirapine was the most permeable antiretroviral agent studied in the BBB model. The order of in vitro BBB permeability was nevirapine >> VX-478 > didanosine, stavudine, zalcitabine, zidovudine > indinavir > saquinavir. There was an apparent bell-shaped relationship between in vitro BBB permeability and octanol/phosphate-buffered saline distribution coefficient (D) where all lipophilic (log D > 2.5) as well as hydrophilic (log D < -0.5) antiretrovirals were less permeable than nevirapine (log D = 1.8). There were no significant effects on the in vitro BBB permeability of nevirapine in combination with other antiretroviral agents. Saquinavir was the only drug shown to have an affinity for the P-glycoprotein efflux pump, which may have contributed to its very low permeability. The apparent ability of nevirapine to readily permeate the BBB and enter the brain, where it may inhibit replication of HIV, potentially increases its therapeutic value.