Prospective proton chemical shift imaging (CSI) of the brain was performed in 30 HIV- 1-seropositive patients and 11 healthy controls. Significant (P < 0.05) reductions in the N-acetyl-L-aspartate (NAA)/total creatine (Cr), and NAA/total choline (Cho) ratios and significant increases in Cho/Cr occurred in patients with 1) AIDS-defining diagnoses; 2) <200 CD4 lymphocyte counts/microl; 3) neurological evidence for an AIDS dementia complex (ADC); 4) magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) signs of cerebral atrophy. The basal ganglia and the insula were affected to approximately the same extent and without indications of spatial variations within these areas. Reduced NAA seems to indicate progressive neuronal injury or loss due to productive HIV infection in the brain and its clinical picture ADC. Spectroscopic abnormalities were, however, also observed in neurologically normal HIV patients or those with normal MRI results. Proton CSI may therefore serve as an early quantitative marker of central nervous system involvement in AIDS.