To clarify the relation between lymphocytes and measles virus in subacute sclerosing panencephalitis, we used in situ hybridization and a cloned measles virus DNA probe, specific for nucleocapsid protein, to detect measles virus RNA sequences in circulating lymphocytes and brain perivascular cuffs of patients with subacute sclerosing panencephalitis. Seventy to 90 per cent of peripheral mononuclear cells from three such patients were found to contain measles virus RNA sequences. In contrast, only a few infected cells were observed in four seropositive adults (0.1 to 5 per cent) and three age-matched children (10 to 15 per cent) used as controls. In one sample of brain tissue from a patient with subacute sclerosing panencephalitis, viral RNA sequences were also detected in nerve cells and in numerous cells from the perivascular infiltrates. In contrast, no hybridization was observed in brain tissue from a patient with herpetic encephalitis and from a patient with postlymphoma encephalitis. We conclude that measles virus has a strong tropism for lymphocytes and nerve cells in subacute sclerosing panencephalitis and that lymphocytes may be involved in the pathogenesis of the disease. (N Engl J Med 1985; 313:910–5.).