White matter (WM) abnormalities are frequently seen on brain MRI of HIV positive (HIV+) patients. We aimed to determine the prevalence of unexplained WM abnormalities and their associations with HIV disease and cardiovascular risk factors. We conducted a retrospective, cross-sectional study of brain MRI of HIV+ patients conducted between 2004 and 2009 at our center. Clinical and laboratory data were compiled, and images were independently reviewed for WM lesions. Images were obtained from 254 patients: 70% male, 53% white, 40% black, mean age 42 years, median current CD4 count 240 cells/mm3, and 41% not taking antiretroviral therapy (ART). Hyperintense WM lesions were present in 161 patients (63.4%): 89 scans (35.0%) showed diffuse WM signal abnormality (DWMSA), 61 (24.0%) were consistent with small vessel disease (SVD, graded by Fazekas' scale), and 37 (14.6%) showed large asymmetrical focal WM lesions. SVD changes were associated with age and cardiovascular risk factors, and while cerebral SVD may be related to HIV infection, the MRI findings were not associated with HIV-related factors. The only risk factor for DWMSA was black race, and no correlation with cardiovascular risk factors, CD4 count, or clinical presentation was identified. DWMSA are therefore of uncertain neurological significance in HIV+ patients and could represent more than one clinicopathological entity. © 2014, Mary Ann Liebert, Inc. 2014.