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ABSTRACT: The pathogenesis of neuropsychological abnormalities in patients with human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1) encephalitis is obscure because neurons are not the target of infection and severe neuronal loss occurs only late during the disease. Moreover, there is evidence indicating that HIV dementia is not a homogeneous entity and could partially reverse after treatment with zidovudine. The finding that impaired axonal flow, evidenced by beta-amyloid precursor protein immunoreactivity, could contribute to the neuropsychological deficits prompted the present study. Brains of patients with full-blown acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) were studied and findings compared with those of normal and abnormal control subjects. The presence of HIV-1 DNA was investigated by nested polymerase chain reaction; axonal abnormalities were detected by beta-amyloid precursor protein, ubiquitin immunohistochemistry, and silver staining. Accumulation of beta-amyloid precursor protein was observed in all the HIV encephalitis brains studied; the appearance of the immunostaining varied from globular structures to bundles of parallel formations. In 2 AIDS brains without pathological abnormalities, only the latter pattern was detected. The brains with trauma were strongly reactive with beta-amyloid precursor protein antibody and the different reactivity within them correlated with posttrauma survival, only globular structures being detected in the older cases. No correlation was found between the different pattern of beta-amyloid precursor protein reactivity and dementia in AIDS patients. These results show that widespread axonal injury is a constant feature in AIDS brains and suggest that it could play a role in the pathogenesis of the neuropsychological abnormalities of these patients.