Neurobiology of multiple insults: HIV-1-associated brain disorders in those who use illicit drugs

Jeanne E Bell, Juan-Carlos Arango, Iain C Anthony

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Despite two decades of research, certain aspects of HIV-related central nervous system (CNS) disease remain poorly understood. HIV targets microglia and macrophages within the CNS and enters the brain compartment early. However, HIV is there held in check apparently until the onset of significant immune compromise, when viral replication, microglial activation, neuronal damage, and cognitive impairment are likely to ensue. Illicit drug abuse continues to be a significant risk factor for HIV transmission worldwide. Whether HIV-related CNS disease is more prevalent or more severe in this risk group has long been debated. Drugs of abuse can of themselves cause immune suppression, blood-brain barrier breakdown, microglial activation, and neuronal injury. This review presents evidence that HIV associated CNS disorders are indeed accentuated in drug abusers. However, the advent of effective therapy has added a new dimension, which must be taken into consideration. Treated individuals are surviving much longer and HIV encephalitis and HIV-associated dementia have become much less common. However, more subtle forms of CNS damage are emerging. Examination of the brains of individuals who have been treated long term with highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART) reveals a surprising degree of microglial activation, comparable at times to that seen formerly in milder cases of HIV encephalitis. In addition, these individuals show evidence of increased deposition of neurodegenerative proteins, particularly hyperphosphorylated tau. Similar observations have been made in young opiate abusers who are HIV negative. Taken together, these results suggest that neuroinflammation and neurodegeneration, which are clinically silent at present, may cause problems in the future in HAART-treated subjects.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)182-91
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Neuroimmune Pharmacology
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2006


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