Dr. Lishomwa Ndhlovu and Dr. Alika Maunakea, researchers at the University of Hawaii, have discovered an unusual epigenetic footprint that shows exactly what is causing HIV related brain damage in individuals living with the disease. From the success of previous studies, scientists have concluded that antiretroviral therapies have significantly improved the survival rate of people diagnosed with HIV. Unfortunately, even with the aid of the therapy, 40% of these individuals still develop neurocognitive disorders that impair their everyday functions. Both Dr. Maunakea and Dr. Ndhlovu believe that with this important discovery they have uncovered better diagnostic testing and treatment decisions for people living with HIV.
HIV can replicate in the brain within four months after diagnosis
The strain of HIV found in the brain can separate and distinguish itself from the strain found in the blood. This process allows the type of HIV found in the blood to genetically mutate itself in the brain, affecting functions such as memory, learning, and speech. Since the virus has the power to mutate itself, drugs that have been developed to help treat HIV are not as effective in the central nervous system which is ultimately where there brain carries out it functions.
With HIV/AIDS still being the leading cause of death in the world, the pressure to throughly understand how this disease affects cognition in the human body has risen. Cognition, the mental process of acquiring knowledge through experience and the five senses, is the tool that the body (more specially the brain) uses to function properly. With out these functions it makes it even harder for people with HIV to live their day-to-day lives.
Fat levels can predict deficiencies in brain function
Researchers studied cerebral spinal fluid samples from 524 individuals, 219 of which were HIV positive. They discovered that as the amount of fat molecules found in their cells increased, their cognitive function decreased. The increase in fat molecule levels in people living with HIV is caused by the virus, as well as the antiretroviral medicine that is used to help treat these individuals.
These findings indicate that the more the brain cells store fat molecules, the more this will inhibit the function of the lysosome. The lysosome is the component of the cell that digests and removes waste. The brain's inability to regulate the lysosome due to the affects of the virus causes a build up of cholesterol and fat. Consequently, this build- up affects cognitive function and disrupts the infected individual's ability to participate in everyday activities such as driving a car or remembering a phone number.
Gene expressions link to more effective treatments for HIV
Epigenetic footprints, a pattern of gene expressions not encoded in DNA, can be used to help provide better treatment for HIV positive individuals. Researchers at the University of Hawaii studied how gene expression is linked to the central nervous system and concluded that there was a strong connection between the DNA and HIV.
Though a precise treatment has not been found for people living with HIV and neurocognitive disorders, the epigenetic footprint serves as a promising tool that will be used to target certain parts of the DNA and create a connection to neurophysiological tests developed by scientists. Overall, this will advance therapeutic efforts to help regulate how HIV inhibits brain function.