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HIV and the Brain

Summer/Fall 2009

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Right from the early years of the epidemic, researchers have recognized that HIV can affect the brain. Before effective antiretroviral therapy (ART), people with AIDS were susceptible to a variety of opportunistic infections of the brain, as well as HIV-related dementia.

With the advent of effective combination ART in the mid-1990s, the prevalence of both conditions declined dramatically in areas with widespread access to treatment. Less severe neurocognitive impairment, however, remains common. In fact, some research indicates that the frequency of HIV-related neurological impairment is rising as people with HIV live longer.

After some time out of the spotlight, neurocognitive problems have again become a pressing concern as the average age of the HIV positive population rises (nearly 25% are now over 50, according to the National Institute on Aging). Recent conferences and journal articles reveal an increased emphasis on the effects of HIV on the brain, part of a larger shift of focus from classic AIDS-related illnesses to long-term progressive conditions in an aging population that are related to HIV and its treatment in ways that are not yet fully understood.

In particular, there is a new appreciation of the detrimental effects of low-level HIV replication and HIV-related immune activation and inflammation, even while the CD4 cell count remains high. And researchers and people with HIV are increasingly questioning whether the virus somehow accelerates the aging process. (See "Aging and HIV: A Conversation with Dr. Malcolm John," for more on getting older with HIV.)

This article discusses the spectrum of neurocognitive manifestations related to HIV/AIDS, looks at their natural history and possible causes, and reviews recent research, including studies presented at the 16th Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections (CROI) in Montreal in February 2009 and the 5th International AIDS Society (IAS) Conference on HIV Pathogenesis, Treatment and Prevention in Cape Town the following July.

Spectrum of Conditions

Abbreviations Used Frequently in This Article

ANI: asymptomatic neurocognitive impairment
CNS: central nervous system
CSF: cerebrospinal fluid
HAD: HIV-associated dementia
HAND: HIV-associated neurocognitive disorder
HNI: HIV-related neurocognitive impairment
IRIS: immune reconstitution inflammatory syndrome
MCI: mild cognitive impairment
MCMD: mild cognitive-motor disorder
MND: mild neurocognitive disorder
OI: opportunistic infection


For information on psychiatric conditions and peripheral neuropathy, which are not discussed in this article, see the following articles in past issues of BETA:

"Conquering Anxiety," Winter 2007
"Overcoming Depression," Winter 2004
"Peripheral Neuropathy," Winter 2002

Neurocognitive impairment in people with HIV may involve cognition (thinking), motor control, and psychological state. Symptoms may include any combination of the following:

  • Poor concentration or attention
  • Confusion or altered mental status
  • Impaired short-term or long-term memory
  • Decreased problem-solving or calculation ability
  • Reduced ability to plan ahead
  • Difficulty learning new things
  • Changes in speech and language comprehension
  • Vision changes
  • Psychomotor slowing
  • Impaired movement
  • Decreased fine motor skills
  • Poor coordination
  • Changes in mood (e.g., apathy, depression)
  • Personality changes
  • Altered behavior

Specific neurological manifestations depend on which parts of the brain are affected. Impairment can range from so mild that it is not apparent without specialized testing, to so severe that it prevents independent living.

Before the advent of effective ART, individuals with advanced immunosuppression and low CD4 counts were susceptible to a host of opportunistic infections (OIs) that attack the brain, including cryptococcal meningitis, toxoplasmosis, and progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy (PML), as well as primary central nervous system (CNS) lymphoma, an AIDS-related malignancy (see sidebar on page 19).

Though less common now, OIs still frequently occur in areas where access to ART is limited and among people who do not begin treatment until HIV disease has already progressed.

Today, most neurocognitive impairment among HIV positive people is not due to opportunistic pathogens, but rather to the effects of HIV itself. As discussed below, neurological disorders are not the result of the virus attacking neurons directly, but instead result from changes in the brain's chemical environment triggered by HIV infection.

HIV-Associated Dementia

People with HIV -- especially those with severe immune suppression -- can develop frank (clearly evident) HIV-associated dementia (HAD), formerly called AIDS dementia complex. HAD is characterized by significant cognitive impairment that affects activities of daily living (for example, taking medications properly, personal care, handling money, or preparing meals). The ability to perform learned complex tasks (e.g., buttoning a shirt) is particularly affected.

A diagnosis of HAD requires significant impairment in at least two separate "domains," or areas of function. HAD is considered to be a subcortical form of dementia, meaning it is more likely to involve executive functions, such as attention, concentration, and processing speed. Cortical dementias, in contrast, are more likely to involve memory loss and deficits in higher-level cognitive functions controlled by the cerebral cortex, such as language comprehension and problemsolving. These categories overlap, however, and patients with HAD may experience the full range of symptoms.

People with HAD typically also develop some degree of motor impairment, including psychomotor slowing, poor coordination, tremors, or impaired fine motor skills (e.g., handwriting). Changes in personality, behavior, and mood are common as well, especially apathy, lack of motivation, or depression.

Individuals with a nadir (lowest ever) CD4 cell count below 200 cells/mm3 remain at higher risk for significant neurocognitive problems even if they subsequently achieve undetectable viral load and good CD4 cell recovery. This has led some researchers to conclude that HIV-related brain injury may in part be irreversible, thus underlining the importance of timely ART to prevent neurocognitive impairment from the outset.

Milder Neurocognitive Disorders

In the ART era, HIV positive individuals with well-preserved immune function generally experience less severe cognitive impairment, known as HIVrelated mild cognitive-motor disorder (MCMD). Overall, the neurocognitive manifestations of MCMD are similar in kind to those of HAD, but of lesser severity. As with HAD, there is no single prototypical pattern of impairment.

A newer classification scheme divides MCMD into asymptomatic neurocognitive impairment (ANI) and HIV-associated mild neurocognitive disorder (MND) or mild cognitive impairment (MCI). People with asymptomatic impairment score below average on standardized neuropsychological tests, but do not have functional deficits apparent either to the individuals themselves or to their families, friends, and coworkers.

Symptoms in people with mild neurocognitive disorder can range from noticeable changes in concentration and short-term memory -- sometimes described as "brain fog" -- to increasing difficulty carrying out daily tasks.

It is not clear whether mild neurocognitive disorder is a precursor to HAD. Some individuals do experience this progression, but many others have stable mild-to-moderate impairment for years without significant worsening. Whereas neurocognitive disorders often appeared suddenly and progressed rapidly in the pre-ART era, today chronic, slowly progressing impairment is a more typical pattern.

The use of varying terminology can make it difficult to compare findings across studies. Because symptoms can wax and wane and there is no clear dividing line between mild and severe impairment, researchers often refer to the entire spectrum as HIVassociated neurocognitive disorder (HAND) or HIV-associated neurocognitive impairment (HNI).

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This article was provided by San Francisco AIDS Foundation. It is a part of the publication Bulletin of Experimental Treatments for AIDS. Visit San Francisco AIDS Foundation's Web site to find out more about their activities, publications and services.
See Also
Neurological Complications of AIDS Fact Sheet
More on Neurological and Neurocognitive Complications of HIV/AIDS

Reader Comments:

Comment by: Anthony (Nigeria) Fri., Jan. 15, 2010 at 4:59 am UTC
I've felt great change in my memory ability as it's now very hard to remember certain things that i've read. I've gone 4 test and am -ve pls i need help. My e-mail id is
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Comment by: kk (boston) Wed., Jan. 13, 2010 at 2:39 pm UTC
This is real its happening to me now 'But the good news is l will be going to school .l suffered alot with headaches till my doctor started me on steroid after bypse am fine and health
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Comment by: Terry Michael (Washington, DC) Thu., Jan. 7, 2010 at 3:52 pm UTC
Take highly toxic DNA chain terminating and protein systhesis inhibiting "life saving treatments" for a few years, and you are bound to have brain damage, as well as immune supprestion. It's the drugs! (Not that I expect your moderator to allow this comment.)
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Comment by: pj (Ghana, Accra.) Sun., Dec. 20, 2009 at 3:05 am UTC
thanks for this. been wondering why i struggle to study these days.
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Comment by: Patrick (London, UK.) Fri., Dec. 18, 2009 at 5:57 am UTC
Liz Highleyman, thank you for this most interesting and valuable "summary" of HIV and the brain.

Only last year I became aware of the research conducted on the brains of people who had HIV. It came as a shock because the message being put forward by the three major AIDS-charities here in the UK, in their prevention campaigns, is that with the arrival of ART all is now "as manageable as diabetes". This is so wrong. And this notion that ART has saved the day is leading people to indulge in risky sex and become infected.

"Examined on autopsy, brains of people with HIV show inflammatory changes, excessive accumulation of astrocytes (known as astrocytosis or gliosis), demyelination (loss of the protective insulation surrounding neuron axons), and build-up of amyloid precursor proteins. Studies have revealed atrophy or abnormalities in various brain regions and structures, including the basal ganglia, hippocampus, and corpus callosum."

The above quote from your article is as clear a warning to we HIV+ people as is needed. At the same time that I became HIV a friend of mine, gay but not HIV, developed Parkinsons. His deterioration has been rapid. He is now in a vegetative state, seemingly "frozen", unable to communicate, cared for 24/7 in a home. It has been a real warning to me of how things may slowly go for me. I hope some merciful doctor will help "let me go" well before things become so awful.
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Comment by: mary soilex (LA CALIFORNIA) Fri., Dec. 18, 2009 at 1:59 am UTC
A most enlighhtened study of this taboo subject among so many.....BRAVO i say~! For prudent health and wholesome living, we must protect our minds, and this message rings true.
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