We analyzed brain tissue from 39 patients for the presence of proviral HIV-1 sequences, using the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) for the amplification of segments of the viral LTR and gag genes. A novel primer extension procedure allowed the detection of a single HIV-1 copy in 1 micrograms DNA. We detected proviral HIV-1 DNA in 16 of 25 brain samples from AIDS patients. Semiquantitative evaluation of the amplified DNAs indicated considerable variation in viral load. Highest levels of proviral DNA were present in brain samples from six patients with clinical evidence of HIV-associated cognitive/motor complex and the histopathologic correlate of HIV leukoencephalopathy or HIV encephalitis. An additional 11 brain samples contained smaller amounts of proviral DNA. In these patients, clinical data were inconclusive regarding the diagnosis of HIV-1 encephalopathy and histopathologically there was no evidence of HIV-1-induced tissue lesions. In nine of 25 seropositive patients with AIDS (36%), brain samples scored negative or did not contain an unequivocal signal indicating the presence of proviral DNA. HIV-1 sequences were not detected in any of 14 control brain samples from HIV-1 seronegative patients. Our data indicate that HIV-1 is present in the central nervous system of the majority (two thirds) of AIDS patients and that the highest levels of proviral DNA in brain tissue are associated with HIV encephalopathy.