We sought to determine the clinical significance of macrophage tropic and nonsyncytium inducing isolates of human immune deficiency virus type 1 (HIV-) in the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) of patients with and without AIDS dementia complex (ADC). HIV-1 was isolated from the CSF of 31 patients with and without ADC. The isolates were then characterised as to the degree of macrophage tropism by quantitation of p24 production and the presence of syncytium inducing (SI) or non-syncytium inducing (NSI) isolates by MT2 assay and SupT1 coculture. The degree of macrophage tropism varied according to the donor macrophage that was used except in strongly macrophage tropic isolates. Moderate and severe ADC (stage ≤ 2) was associated with the presence of highly macrophage tropic isolates in the CSF (P = 0.01). The sensitivity and specificity values of a highly macrophage tropic isolate in the CSF for ADC stage ≤ 2 were 82% and 66% respectively while the predictive value was 64%. Three of four asymptomatic patients with such highly macrophage tropic isolates in the CSF subsequently developed ADC after an average of 4 months. Twenty-eight isolates from the CSF and 23 from the blood were NSI regardless of the presence or absence of ADC. The predictive value of an SI isolate in the blood reflecting an SI isolate in the CSF was 37.5% while the predictive value of an NSI isolate in the blood reflecting an NSI in the CSF was 100%. These data suggest that host factors are essential in determining the degree of macrophage tropism in HIV-1 and that such tropism is important for the presence and possibly subsequent development of ADC. The CSF usually has NSI isolates regardless of the presence of ADC and irrespective of the presence of such isolates in the blood thereby suggesting that the CSF is behaving virologically as a separate compartment to the blood.