Scientists from the University of Minnesota recently discovered that the transactivator of transcription (Tat) protein in HIV infections changes neural networks so the neurons adjust to the toxic presence of Tat in the body.
This is an important discovery because of HIV-associated neurocognitive disorders (HAND), which affect an estimated 50 percent of people who have HIV infections. This disorder significantly impairs the patients’ neurocognitive function; the disorder can cause new-onset seizures among certain patients.
"The most notable discovery from this study is that the activity of the networked neurons adapted in the sustained presence of the HIV protein,” Dr. Kelly Krogh, lead author and a research fellow at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, said.
HIV produces Tat, even during antiretroviral therapy. The protein changes the neurons’ excitability, which makes the cell surface proteins bind to the toxins.
“The adaptations may improve survival at a cost of impaired network function,” Dr. Stanley Thayer, senior study author, said. “Perhaps some of the deficits caused by HIV in the brain result from coping mechanisms gone awry."
The researchers intend to continue their studies to detect new ways for HIV to be treated.
“That the electrical changes recorded in vitro may not correspond to EEG changes in HIV-positive patients, but this work does establish the principle that networks of neurons adapt to the presence of a toxic HIV protein and suggest that viewing EEG changes as an adaptive response might facilitate therapeutic intervention,” Mathew Green, a doctoral student, said.