While brain impairment and dementia brought on by HIV has long been a concern among doctors and people living with the disease, a recent study suggests that HIVers might be at a much lower risk of it than has been previously suggested in studies.
Two years ago, the results of a large study presented in Cape Town, South Africa, rattled the HIV community by revealing that 53% of the 1,555 HIV-positive people tested had at least a mild impairment of brain function. While in most cases, the impairment was slight, it nonetheless raised concerns about the long term effects of HIV on the brain.
However, two new studies presented at the 17th annual conference of the British HIV Association (BHIVA) in April offered less worrisome findings, suggesting that brain impairment wasn't much more common in people with HIV than it was in people without.
The first study examined 101 HIV-positive adults (average age 53) with no previous symptoms of brain problems. The rate of impairment found in this group was 19%, which is not only considerably lower than the 53% found in the previous study, it's only 3% above the rate of impairment found in the general population.
The second study focused on 31 young people between the ages of 16 and 25. Comparing their brain function with 14 of their HIV-negative brothers and sisters (making sure to match age, ethnicity, and gender), the results of two separate tests showed no more impairment in the HIV-positive youngsters than was found in their HIV-negative siblings. The third test, which focused on the effects of distress on memory and thinking problems, did yield higher instances of impairment in the group with HIV, but researchers suggest that these results could be affected by the level of depression and anxiety commonly found in people with the disease. Brain impairment can lead to loss of memory, concentration, or motor skills, as well as cause behavioral changes and, in severe cases, dementia.
While more research will need to be done in this area to determine specifically how HIV affects the brain, the new data provides hope for people concerned about the level of cognitive damage caused by the virus.