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Human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1) infection of the brain has been associated with a severe dementing illness in children and adults. However, HIV-1 antigens are most frequently found in macrophages and microglial cells. To determine the extent of susceptibility of neuroglial cells to infection, the HIV-1 genome was introduced into cells cultured from human fetal brain tissue. Astroglial cells rapidly transcribed the viral genome producing high levels of p24 protein and infectious virions which peaked two to three days posttransfection. Thereafter HIV-1 genome expression progressively diminished and a persistent phase of infection developed during which neither virus nor viral proteins could be demonstrated by immunodetection methods. Cocultivation with CD4+ T cells at any time during the persistent infection resulted in resumption of p24 synthesis and virus multiplication. The release of persistence did not require direct cell-cell contact between the glial and T cells, since separation of the two cell types across a permeable membrane resulted in a delayed but similar resumption of p24 synthesis and virus multiplication. The persistently infected glial cells could also be stimulated to produce viral p24 protein if either tumor necrosis factor alpha or interleukin-1 beta was added to the medium without T cells present. These results suggest that astrocytes may serve as an undetected reservoir for HIV-1 and disseminate the virus to other susceptible cells in the brain upon triggering by some cellular or biochemical signal.