AIDS and HIV, Neurological Complications of

What are the neurological complications of AIDS and HIV?

The Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), which causes the disorder Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS), primarily affects the immune system but also can lead to a wide range of severe neurological disorders, particularly if HIV goes untreated and progresses to AIDS. Many of the most severe neurological conditions can be prevented with antiretroviral therapy. HIV does not directly invade nerve cells (neurons) but puts their function at risk by infecting cells called glia that support and protect neurons. HIV also triggers inflammation that may damage the brain and spinal cord (central nervous system) and cause symptoms such as:

  • confusion and forgetfulness
  • inability to concentrate
  • behavioral changes
  • headaches
  • mood disorders (anxiety disorder and depression)
  • movement problems (loss of movement control) including a lack of coordination and difficulty walking.

Damage to the peripheral nerves can cause progressive weakness and loss of sensation in the arms and legs. Research has shown that HIV infection can cause shrinking of brain structures involved in learning and information processing.

Other nervous system complications that can occur as a result of HIV infection or the drugs used to treat it include:

  • pain
  • seizures
  • strokes
  • shingles
  • difficulty swallowing
  • fever
  • vision loss
  • coma
  • problems with bladder control or sexual functioning.

These symptoms may be mild in the early stages of AIDS but can become increasingly severe.

The nervous system may be affected directly by the HIV virus, by certain cancers and opportunistic infections that result from a weakened immune system, or by the toxic effects of medications used to treat infection. Other neurological complications may be influenced by, but are not directly caused by, the HIV virus.

HIV-associated neurocognitive disorders (HAND) include a spectrum from no symptoms to severe neurocognitive impairment. The more serious forms of HAND also are referred to as AIDS dementia complex (ADC) or HIV-associated dementia and primarily occur in people with more advanced HIV infection. Signs and symptoms include encephalitis (inflammation of the brain), behavioral changes, and a gradual decline in cognitive function, including trouble with concentration, memory, and attention. People with ADC also show progressive slowing of motor function and loss of dexterity and coordination. When left untreated, ADC can be fatal.

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Learn About Clinical Trials
Clinical trials are studies that allow us to learn more about disorders and improve care. They can help connect patients with new and upcoming treatment options.

How can I or my loved one help improve care for people with AIDS and HIV?

Consider participating in a clinical trial so clinicians and scientists can learn more about HIV and AIDS. Clinical research uses human volunteers to help researchers learn more about a disorder and perhaps find better ways to safely detect, treat, or prevent disease.

All types of volunteers are needed—those who are healthy or may have an illness or disease—of all different ages, sexes, races, and ethnicities to ensure that study results apply to as many people as possible, and that treatments will be safe and effective for everyone who will use them.

For information about participating in clinical research visit NIH Clinical Research Trials and You. Learn about clinical trials currently looking for people with HIV and AIDS at Clinicaltrials.gov.

Where can I find more information about the neurological complications of AIDS and HIV?

More information is available from the following resource:

National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID)