The stage of HIV infection at which the virus enters the nervous system remains poorly understood. Examination of brains of HIV-positive non-AIDS patients often shows lymphocytic meningitis, myelin pallor and gliosis, but no immunohistochemical (IHC) evidence of the virus. In this study we have examined a number of brains from HIV-positive patients with (23) and without (8) AIDS as well as brains from 5 HIV-negative controls by morphological, morphometric, IHC and polymerase chain reaction (PCR) methods in an attempt to establish at what stage of the infection HIV can be detected in the brain and to correlate its presence with the pathological changes in the cortex. HIV-1 proviral DNA was found by PCR in the cortex of the majority of AIDS and in 2 out of 8 non-AIDS cases. Astroglial reaction was observed in the cortex of the majority of AIDS brains but not in most of the non-AIDS brains which showed, in addition, a dramatic reduction of glial fibrillary acidic protein staining around blood vessels; moreover, in this group the density of microglial cells was higher than in the AIDS group. These results show that: 1) HIV proviral DNA can be found in the brains of HIV-positive non- AIDS patients; 2) in the same group there is an increase in density of microglial cells which 3) appears to be transient, since AIDS brains without neuropathology show a lower density of these cells. They also suggest that the status of'immune reaction' existing in AIDS may predate this period. By analogy with the cytokine hypothesis of neural damage in established AIDS cases, it is tempting to invoke a similar mechanism to explain the neuropathological changes observed in the early stages of the infection.