Although loss of CD4+ lymphocytes in peripheral blood is a standard criterion for evaluating the course of HIV disease, little is known about changes within lymphoid organs, which contain the bulk (> 50%) of the body's lymphocytes. Because such studies are feasible only by using non-human primates, we have examined lymph nodes (LNs), spleen, and blood from monkeys infected with two isolates of simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV). During both the acute and chronic phases of these infections, characteristic reductions in the blood CD4+ cell levels are not reflected in LN, where the CD4+ pool remains within normal levels. However, when circulating CD4/CD8 ratios have consistently fallen to approximately 0.5, striking decreases in the percentage of CD4 cells (CD4%) and CD4/CD8 ratios in LN occur concomitantly with dramatic increases in viral antigen expression on follicular dendritic cells within LN germinal centers (GCs). The data suggest that loss from the total T cell pool in minimal until the final stages of SIV and HIV disease and that the immunological deterioration of LN is the event that precipitates the increased susceptibility to infections and progression to AIDS.