Progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy (PML), a formerly rare disease, is estimated to occur in up to 5% of all patients with AIDS. The high prevalence of PML in AIDS patients currently enables a comprehensive evaluation of this disorder. We evaluated the clinical and radiographic features of PML in a large cohort of AIDS patients identified by retrospective chart review from 1981 to 1994. Two hundred and five patients were diagnosed with PML of which 154 met the inclusion criteria. Seventy-two (47%) were pathologically confirmed and the remaining 82 (53%) met clinical and radiographic criteria. There was a 12-fold increase in the frequency of PML between 1981-1984 and 1991-1994. PML affected 136 men and 18 women with AIDS. Eighty-four percent of cases were 20-50 years old (range 5 to 68 years). The most common AIDS risk factors were homosexuality (57%) among men and heterosexual transmission (28%) and intravenous drug abuse (28%) among women. In 27% of patients, PML heralded AIDS. Common manifestations included weakness, gait abnormalities, speech disturbance, cognitive disorders, headache, and visual impairment. The CD4 lymphocyte counts exceeded 200 cells in 11% at the time of presentation. Involvement of posterior fossa structures was evident in 48% of cranial magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) studies, but in only 11% of computed tomographies (CT) of the brain. Contrast enhancement, typically faint and peripheral, was seen in 10% of CT scans and 15% of MRIs. The median survival was 6 months and survival exceeded 1 year in 9%. PML is no longer a rare disease. It often heralds AIDS and may occur in the absence of significant decline in CD4 lymphocytes. Survival is generally poor, although prolonged survival beyond 1 year is not unusual.