Why HIV-associated dementia occurs & implications for other disorders

October, 2012

A new understanding of why dementia sometimes occurs with HIV, even when treated, may also suggest a new approach to other neurological disorders, including age-related cognitive decline.

HIV-associated dementia occurs in around 30% of untreated HIV-positive patients. Surprisingly, it also is occasionally found in some patients (2-3%) who are being successfully treated for HIV (and show no signs of AIDS).

A new study may have the answer for this mystery, and suggest a solution. Moreover, the answer may have general implications for those experiencing cognitive decline in old age.

The study found that HIV, although it doesn’t directly infect neurons, tries to stop the development of BDNF. Long known to be crucial for memory and learning, the reduced production of mature BDNF results in axons and dendrites shortening — meaning connections between neurons are lost. That in turn, brings about the death of some neurons.

It seems that the virus interferes with the normal process of development in BDNF, whereby one form of it, called proBDNF, is cut by certain enzymes into a new form called mature BDNF. It is in this form that it has its beneficial effect on neuron growth. Unfortunately, in its earlier form it is toxic to neurons.

This imbalance in the proportions of mature BDNF and proBDNF also appears to occur as we age, and in depression. It may also be a risk factor in Parkinson's and Huntington's diseases.

However, these findings suggest a new therapeutic approach.

Compounds in green tea and chocolate may help protect brain cells

In which context, it is interesting to note another new study, which has been busy analyzing the effects on brain cells of 2000 compounds, both natural and synthetic. Of the 256 that looked to have protective effects, nine were related to epicatechin, which is found in cocoa and green tea leaves.

While we’ve been aware for some time of these positive qualities, the study specifically identified epicatechin and epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) as being the most effective at helping protect neurons by inducing production of BDNF.

One of the big advantages these compounds have is in their ability to cross the blood-brain barrier, making them a good candidate for therapy.

While green tea, dark chocolate, and cocoa are particularly good sources, many fruits also have good levels, in particular, black grapes, blackberries, apples, cherries, pears, and raspberries. (see this University of Davis document (pdf) for more detail)