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NINDS Neurological Complications of AIDS Information Page

Federal domestic HIV/AIDS information and resources can be found at logo

Synonym(s):  AIDS - Neurological Complications
Condensed from Neurological Complications of AIDS Fact Sheet

Table of Contents (click to jump to sections)

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What are Neurological Complications of AIDS?

AIDS is primarily an immune system disorder caused by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), but it can also affect the nervous system. HIV does not appear to directly invade nerve cells but it jeopardizes their health and function, causing symptoms such as confusion, forgetfulness, behavioral changes, headaches, progressive weakness and loss of sensation in the arms and legs, cognitive motor impairment, or damage to the peripheral nerves. Other complications that can occur as a result of HIV infection or the drugs used to treat it include pain, seizures, shingles, spinal cord problems, lack of coordination, difficult or painful swallowing, anxiety disorder, depression, fever, vision loss, gait disorders, destruction of brain tissue, and coma. Other AIDS-related nervous system disorders may be caused by certain cancers or by illnesses that would not otherwise affect people with healthy immune systems.

Among the most common neurological complications are: AIDS dementia complex, causing symptoms such as encephalitis (inflammation of the brain), behavioral changes, and a gradual decline in cognitive function; central nervous system lymphomas, cancerous tumors that either begin in the brain or result from a cancer that has spread from another site in the body; cryptococcal meningitis; cytomegalovirus infections; herpes virus infections; neuropathy; neurosyphilis; progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy (PML); and psychological and neuropsychiatric disorders.

Is there any treatment?

No single treatment can cure the neurological complications of AIDS.  Some disorders require aggressive therapy while others are treated symptomatically.

Medicines range from analgesics sold over the counter to antiepileptic drugs, opiates, corticosteroids, and some classes of antidepressants. Other treatments include radiation therapy or chemotherapy to kill or shrink cancerous brain tumors that may be caused by HIV, antifungal or antimalarial drugs to combat certain bacterial infections, and penicillin to treat neurosyphilis.  Aggressive antiretroviral therapy is used to treat AIDS dementia complex, PML, and cytomegalovirus encephalitis.  HAART, or highly active antiretroviral therapy, combines at least three drugs to reduce the amount of virus circulating in the blood and may also delay the start of some infections.

What is the prognosis?

The overall prognosis for individuals with AIDS in recent years has improved significantly because of new drugs and treatments. AIDS clinicians often fail to recognize neurological complications of AIDS. Those who suspect they are having neurological complications should be sure to discuss these with their doctor.

What research is being done?

Within the Federal government, the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), one part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), supports research on the neurological consequences of AIDS.  The NINDS works closely with its sister agency, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), which has primary responsibility for research related to HIV and AIDS.

NIH Patient Recruitment for Neurological Complications of AIDS Clinical Trials


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Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation
1140 Connecticut Avenue, NW
Suite 200
Washington, DC 20036
Tel: 202-296-9165 888-499-HOPE (-4673)
Fax: 202-296-9185

amfAR, The Foundation for AIDS Research
120 Wall Street
13th Floor
New York, NY 10005-3908
Tel: 212-806-1600
Fax: 212-806-1601

National Association of People with AIDS
8401 Colesville Road
Suite 505
Silver Spring, MD 20910
Tel: 240-247-0880 or 866-846-9366
Fax: 240-247-0574

National NeuroAIDS Tissue Consortium
401 N. Washington Street
Suite 700
Rockville, MD 20850
Tel: 866-668-2272 301-251-1161 ext. 186
Fax: 301-576-4597

National Prevention Information Network
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, DHHS
P.O. Box 6003
Rockville, MD 20849-6003
Tel: 301-562-1098 800-458-5231
Fax: 888-282-7681

NIAID Office of Communications and Government Relations
National Institutes of Health, DHHS
5601 Fishers Lane, MSC 9806
Bethesda, MD 20892
Tel: 301-496-5717

AIDSInfo (AIDS Information Service)
P.O. Box 4780
Rockville, MD 20849-6303
Tel: 800-HIV-0440 (448-0440) TTY: 888-480-3739
Fax: 301-315-2818

Neurologic AIDS Research Consortium
Department of Neurology Washington School of Medicine Campus Box 8111
660 S. Euclid Avenue
St. Louis, MO 63110
Tel: 314-747-8423
Fax: 314-747-8427

Neurologic AIDS Research Consortium
Department of Neurology Washington School of Medicine Campus Box 8111
660 S. Euclid Avenue
St. Louis, MO 63110
Tel: 314-747-8423
Fax: 314-747-8427

Related NINDS Publications and Information
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Prepared by:
Office of Communications and Public Liaison
National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
National Institutes of Health
Bethesda, MD 20892

NINDS health-related material is provided for information purposes only and does not necessarily represent endorsement by or an official position of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke or any other Federal agency. Advice on the treatment or care of an individual patient should be obtained through consultation with a physician who has examined that patient or is familiar with that patient's medical history.

All NINDS-prepared information is in the public domain and may be freely copied. Credit to the NINDS or the NIH is appreciated.

Last Modified November 2, 2015