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In this consecutive autopsy study, the pathological evidence of HIV encephalitis, which included the presence of giant cells and/or HIV p24 immunopositivity, was found more frequently in drug users (25 of 45; 56%) than in homosexual men (6 of 35; 17%) with AIDS (P < 0.01). Productive infection, as shown by HIV p24 positivity, was found in frontal lobe white matter in 29 of the 31 HIV encephalitis cases, but was also present in grey matter in 50% of the HIV encephalitis cases. Immunopositivity was confined to microglia, monocytes and most but not all giant cells. HIV-1 proviral load was determined by quantitative PCR in 65 of the 80 cases (separately in grey and white matter in 49 of these), and correlated well with the presence of HIV encephalitis (P < 0.001). Twenty-five patients with AIDS (13 male homosexuals, 12 drug users) showed no HIV encephalitis, opportunistic infection or cerebral lymphoma, while 18 (2 male homosexuals, 16 drug users) showed pure HIV encephalitis. Cognitive function had been assessed prospectively in this cohort and graded as normal or mildly, moderately or severely impaired. Because opportunistic infections and lymphomas of the brain may also lead to dementia, patients found to have these conditions at autopsy were excluded from the final analysis of the cases with dementia, so that the precise correlation between cognitive impairment and pure HIV encephalitis could be determined in this cohort without possible confounding variables. Fourteen of 18 patients with pure HIV encephalitis had shown cognitive impairment. Severe dementia correlated better with pure HIV encephalitis in cases in which grey matter involvement was present (7 out of 9) than in those in which only white matter was involved (2 out of 9) (P < 0.05), although milder degrees of cognitive impairment had been present in a further 5 HIV encephalitis cases. No correlation was found between zidovudine therapy and the degree of cognitive impairment. Systemic and cerebral opportunistic infections and lymphoma showed a negative association with HIV encephalitis, being more common in homosexuals than in drug users, despite comparable CD4 counts in the two groups. These findings suggest that neocortical productive HIV infection is a significant factor in AIDS-related dementia, although this may reflect merely a higher overall viral burden in the brain.

Original publication




Journal article



Publication Date



121 ( Pt 11)


2043 - 2052


AIDS Dementia Complex, Autopsy, Cognition Disorders, Cohort Studies, Encephalitis, Viral, Female, HIV Core Protein p24, HIV Infections, HIV Seropositivity, HIV-1, Homosexuality, Male, Humans, Magnetic Resonance Imaging, Male, Neocortex, Proviruses, Substance Abuse, Intravenous