Effects of Alcohol and HIV Infection on the Central Nervous System

By Meyerhoff, Dieter J. | Alcohol Research, January 1, 2001 | Go to article overview
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Effects of Alcohol and HIV Infection on the Central Nervous System

Meyerhoff, Dieter J., Alcohol Research

Many people at risk for or infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) are heavy drinkers. Both HIV infection and heavy alcohol use adversely affect the immune system and central nervous system (CNS) function. However, little research has addressed the effects of heavy alcohol use on the severity and progression of HIV disease, including the development of HIV-associated CNS disease. Animal and in-vitro studies suggest that alcohol impairs various aspects of the immune system and increases the susceptibility to HIV infection, but may not accelerate progression of HIV disease. However, heavy alcohol use may interfere with the patient's adherence to antiretroviral treatment regimens. Neuropathological and neuropsychological studies have indicated that certain brain areas are affected by both HIVinfection and chronic alcohol abuse. Magnetic resonance spectroscopy studies of both HIVpositive and HIV-negative people who were either heavy or light drinkers found that chronic alcohol abuse exacerbates some metabolic injury in the brains of HIV-infected people, although this effect may be less pronounced in patients receiving effective antiretroviral therapy. KEY woRDS: HIV infection; central nervous system; immune system; heavy AOD (alcohol and other drug) use; chronic RODE (effects of AOD use, abuse, and dependence); drug therapy; patient compliance; brain damage; neuropathy

Infection with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and the resulting acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) epidemic are major public health problems in the United States and worldwide. One common cause of illness and death associated with HIV infection is central nervous system (CNS) disease. The most severe manifestation of CNS disease is HIV-associated dementia complex (HADC), a neurological syndrome characterized by disordered mental functions (i.e., cognition), motor functions, and behavior. Many members of populations at high risk for HIV infection (e.g., intravenous drug users and homosexuals) also are heavy drinkers, and alcohol has its own adverse effects on CNS function. Nevertheless, almost no research has directly addressed the effects of heavy alcohol use on the severity of HIV disease and its progression to AIDS.

This review summarizes information regarding the prevalence of alcohol abuse among HIV-infected people as well as current knowledge regarding the separate and combined effects of HIV infection and alcohol use on the brain and the immune system. The article then reviews the relationship among alcohol use, adherence to HIV treatment regimens, and HIV disease progression. Subsequently, it discusses the CNS effects of HIV infection/AIDS and alcohol abuse, focusing on pathological and psychological observations as well as on findings obtained using various imaging techniques. Finally, the article reviews the scant published literature on the CNS effects of combined HrV infection and alcohol abuse.


By the end of the year 2000, approximately 920,000 Americans were living with HIV infection/AIDS,' and approximately one-half of these patients had been infected with HIV for more than 10 years. Most HIV-infected people in North America are between ages 18 to 44. Within the general American population of this age range, 17 percent of men and 10 percent of women are afflicted at some point over their lifespan by an alcohol use disorder (AUD)-that is, alcohol abuse or dependence. Among alcohol-abusing patients, the HIV infection rate is significantly higher than for the general population-that is, about 5 to 10 percent (depending on risk factors such as intravenous drug use, homosexuality, and geographic location). (For a more extensive review of alcohol use in HIV-infected patients see, for example, Petry 1999.)

Similarly, AUDs are much more common among HIV-infected people than among the general U.S. population. For example, 29 to 60 percent of HIV-- infected patients develop an AUD at some point during their lives, a rate that is approximately three times as high as that of the general U.

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Effects of Alcohol and HIV Infection on the Central Nervous System


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