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Bottom Lines

April 2002

Getting High May Damage the Immune System

A study of specially bred mice transplanted with human immune cells has shown that cocaine increases the production and spread of HIV. Mice given cocaine by injection had much greater losses of T cells and increases in viral load than mice given ordinary salt water (used as a control). The research is published in the March 1 issue of The Journal of Infectious Diseases (185, p. 701, 2002). Also, a November 23, 2001, report by the Canadian AIDS Treatment Information Exchange ( suggests that the recreational drug ecstasy may have a negative effect on the immune system as well. The report refers to several studies indicating that ecstasy lowers T-cell counts and that the drug interferes with how the immune system fights infection. Also, anti-HIV drugs can cause the level of ecstasy to rise to dangerous levels in the body.

Bottom Line: People with HIV need to take care of their immune systems. Frequent drug use puts your health at risk. Your immune system can't fight HIV if it is fighting the effects of drugs like cocaine or ecstasy. If you use and want to stop, take the first step by talking to a counselor or your health care provider.

Brain Drain

HIV-associated dementia is possible in people with AIDS. Fortunately, since new anti-HIV medications came out in the mid 1990s, less dementia is being seen overall. However, medical professionals know that HIV still affects the brain. HIV can infect certain brain cells early on, and most anti-HIV medications cannot get into the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) very well. So what is HIV doing up there?

One recent study has found that individuals with HIV have problems with verbal working memory, in other words short-term storage and processing of words. The researchers, from Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, found that people with early HIV disease and those with later, symptomatic disease had problems with verbal memory span. (They had more trouble remembering information they heard). Also, those with later disease had less short-term storage ability. The research paper was published in Psychological Medicine (31, p. 1279, 2001). A second study, published in AIDS (16, p. 31, 2002), found that HIV-associated dementia has some similarities with Alzheimer's disease. Also, patients with dementia had higher levels of a T cell called "CD14/CD69" than patients without dementia. However, these levels overall seemed lower than in the time before anti-HIV medications were available. The researchers believe that anti-HIV medication helps save brain cells from dying, but that the virus still damages them.

Bottom Line: Even when blood tests show HIV as "undetectable," there is still virus in almost every part of the body, including the brain. Remember that we all become more forgetful as we get older, so locking your keys in your car doesn't mean you are experiencing dementia! However, contact your health care provider if you are experiencing any of the following symptoms over a period of time: difficulty remembering things, getting lost in familiar places, difficulty making decisions or completing tasks, trouble doing simple math (working with money, for example). If you are having vision or balance problems, see a doctor right away.

Back to the HIV Treatment ALERTS! April 2002 contents page.

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