Infection by human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1) is often complicated by a variety of neurological abnormalities. The most common clinical syndrome, termed acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) dementia complex, presents as a subcortical dementia with cognitive, motor, and behavioral disturbances and is unique to HIV-1 infection. The pathogenesis of this syndrome is poorly understood but is believed to involve interactions among virally infected macrophages/microglia, astrocytes, and neurons. In this study, we show that exposure of primary rat and human astrocytes to heat-activated HIV-1 virions, or to eukaryotically expressed HIV-1 and HIV-2 envelope glycoproteins (gp120) stimulates amiloride-sensitive Na+/H+ antiport, potassium conductance, and glutamate efflux. These effects are blocked specifically by amiloride, an inhibitor of Na+/H+ antiport and by the selective removal of gp120 with immobilized monoclonal antibody. As a result of modulation of astrocytic function by gp120, the ensuing neuronal depolarization and glutamate exposure could activate both voltage-gated and N-methyl-D-aspartate-regulated Ca2+ channels, leading to increases in intraneuronal Ca2+ and neuronal death. These findings implicate the astrocyte directly in the pathogenesis of AIDS dementia complex.