White matter change occurs in human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) encephalopathy, which may be difficult to assess subjectively especially in the early stages of disease. This study applies a quantitative approach to the assessment of this finding. Sixty-three HIV seropositive subjects, 47 seronegative blood donors and 17 seronegative homosexual men underwent axial T2 weighted MRI of the brain at 1.5T. Quantitative analysis was performed by obtaining the pixel contrast between parieto-occipital white matter and head of caudate grey matter (Cwg). Highest values of Cwg were found in a subgroup of subjects with AIDS who had diffuse/patchy white matter abnormalities and atrophy on qualitative image assessment. Statistically significant differences were found in Cwg between subjects with high (≥ 200 × 106/l) and low (<200 × 106/l) CD4 lymphocyte counts (P < 0.05) and between subjects with and without HIV-1 associated cognitive/motor complex (P < 0.05). This technique provides an objective measure of diffuse HIV-related parenchymal abnormality seen on T2 weighted MRI. © 1996 The Royal College of Radiologists.