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There are many excellent reviews of HIV infection of the nervous system. However these all assume that the reader has a working knowledge of the structure and cellular architecture of the brain. It may be that specialised brain vocabulary represents an unwelcome hurdle for those scientists with expert knowledge of the effects of HIV in other cell systems and who wish to extend that interest to the brain. This review provides an introduction to the component structures and cells of the brain and an overview of their involvement in HIV/AIDS. HIV infection leads to death through its capacity to progressively devastate the immune system. Current anti-HIV therapy has achieved considerable success in halting and partially reversing this process. In the absence of treatment, the breakdown of immunity is marked by declining CD4 counts and increasing vulnerability to opportunistic infections. In parallel with these effects on the lymphoid system, the nervous system is frequently the site of an initially stealthy infection which leads ultimately to symptomatic disease in a significant proportion of HIV infected individuals. The most feared manifestation of central nervous system (CNS) involvement is dementia. Unfortunately, serial CD4 counts and measurement of blood viral load do not serve to identify or monitor early infection of brain tissue. Since effective anti-HIV therapy has not achieved eradication of virus from lymphoid tissues, and anti-HIV drugs do not enter the nervous system easily, it is hardly surprising that HIV infection of the nervous system continues to cause clinical problems. Even in treatment-compliant patients, a measurable degree of cognitive impairment may develop, signalling previous or present HIV-related brain injury. The cause of HIV associated dementia and cognitive disability remains poorly understood. Perhaps most significantly, the long-term consequences of clinically occult brain infection are unknown and will require further investigation.

Original publication




Journal article


Curr HIV Res

Publication Date





249 - 257


AIDS Dementia Complex, Animals, Brain, CD4 Lymphocyte Count, HIV, Humans, Microglia