Mounting evidence suggests that cognitive dysfunction developing as a result of HIV-1 infection is mediated at least in part by generation of excitotoxins and free radicals in the brain. This syndrome is currently designated HIV-1-associated cognitive/motor complex, was originally termed the AIDS Dementia Complex, and for simplicity, is called AIDS dementia in this review. Recently, brains of patients with AIDS have been shown to manifest neuronal injury and apoptotic-like cell death. How can HIV-1 result in neuronal damage if neurons themselves are only rarely, if ever, infected by the virus? Experiments from several different laboratories have lent support to the existence of HIV- and immune-related toxins in a variety of in vitro and in vivo paradigms. In one recently defined pathway to neuronal injury, HIV-infected macrophages and microglia, or immune-activated macrophages and astrocytes (activated by the shed HIV-1 envelope protein, gp120, or other viral proteins and cytokines), appear to secrete excitants and neurotoxins. These substances may include arachidonic acid, platelet-activating factor, free radicals (NO and O•−), glutamate, quinolinate, cysteine, amines, and as yet unidentified factors emanating from stimulated macrophages and reactive astrocytes. A final common pathway for neuronal susceptibility is operative, similar to that observed in stroke and several neurodegenerative diseases. This mechanism involves excessive activation of -methyl--aspartate (NMDA) receptor–operated channels, with resultant excessive influx of Ca2+ and the generation of free radicals, leading to neuronal damage. With the very recent development of clinically tolerated NMDA antagonists, there is hope for future pharmacological intervention.


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  • Article Type: Review Article
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