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AIDS Virus Can Infect Neurons

For release: Tuesday, September 28, 1993

Using modern genetic techniques that can detect single copies of genes inside intact cells, scientists have uncovered the first conclusive evidence that the AIDS virus (HIV) can infect neurons. And using fetal brain tissue cultures, scientists have identified key substances that turn on the AIDS virus in the brain. These and other advances in understanding how HIV attacks and damages the nervous system will be presented by more than 25 leading basic and clinical researchers at the upcoming conference, "Technical Advances in AIDS Research in the Human Nervous System," to be held at the Madison Hotel in Washington, DC on October 4-5, 1993.

"The AIDS virus affects the brain in a variety of subtle ways to cause a multitude of devastating clinical problems," said Eugene Major, Ph.D., conference chair and AIDS coordinator for the intramural program of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). "Our understanding of this complex picture has matured dramatically thanks to new findings from innovative technologies to be described at this conference."

The upcoming conference is sponsored by the NINDS with support from the National Institutes of Health's Office of AIDS Research and IGEN, Inc., a biotechnology company based in Rockville, Maryland.

"IGEN is proud to present at this meeting its promising new technology — electrochemiluminescence — that may advance the ability to diagnose HIV and other infectious agents in the central nervous system," said Dr. Richard Massey, the company's president.

Other advances to be presented at the conference include:

  • a new mouse model that offers insight into brain damage in children with AIDS,
  • evidence that specific brain cells, called glial cells, may serve as an AIDS virus reservoir, and
  • identification of toxins secreted by infected cells in the brain that may cause AIDS dementia.

More than half of people who are infected with HIV develop neurological complications during the course of their disease, and some autopsy studies show abnormal changes in brain and nervous tissue in as many as 90 percent of patients. Two common complications are AIDS dementia, which progressively strips away the abilities to learn and remember, and painful damage to the body's nerves called peripheral neuropathy. Both of these complications affect about one in three AIDS patients.

"As ongoing research teaches us more about how the AIDS virus damages vulnerable cells in the brain and nervous system to cause disease, we are also gaining valuable insights into how these cells work together to yield normal brain function," said Patricia A. Grady, Ph.D., acting director of the NINDS.

The NINDS, one of the 17 National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, MD, is the nation's leading supporter of research on disorders of the brain and nervous system. IGEN, Inc. was founded in 1982 to provide products for integrated health care related to cancer and acute infectious disease.

Last Modified August 7, 2009