In patients with HIV encephalitis, activated macrophages and microglial cells in the brain are infected by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV-1). Immune activation can release neurotoxic chemicals including cytokines, free radicals, autocoids, and hydrolytic enzymes. In this study, the presence of hydrolytic enzymes in acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS)-related neurodegeneration was addressed. Activities of four lysosomal hydrolases were assayed in the frontal lobe of 69 males who died with AIDS and 31 age-matched control men. Activities of all four enzymes were increased significantly (1.6 to 3.6 times) in white matter of patients with AIDS. Less pronounced increases were present in cerebral cortex. Of 69 of the subjects with AIDS, 50 (72%), had at least one abnormally active enzyme. Patients with HIV encephalitis and other neuropathological changes were affected as were many subjects without any clear neuropathological anomaly. Lysosomal cathepsin D immunostaining revealed increased lysosomes within perivascular macrophages, multinucleated cells, activated microglial cells, and hypertrophic astrocytes. Increased enzyme activity was correlated significantly with assay results for HIV-1 DNA using the polymerase chain reaction. The release of acid hydrolases associated with cerebral HIV-1 infection could lead to unopposed hydrolysis of matrix and surface proteins. These post-translational disturbances could contribute to white matter and synaptic injury in AIDS.