Positive Life NSW Blog

Is HIV in your brain?

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Though it won't affect a majority of people living with HIV, some will experience HIV-related neurological conditions. The sooner these conditions are addressed, the better you'll feel and your health will improve, writes Positive Life NSW CEO Craig Cooper.

Image: drawing of a human head with coloured balls of light and waves of light coming from the head.

Depression, mental health and other neurological changes can affect everyone, especially as we age. For people living with HIV (PLHIV), the virus quickly crosses the all-important blood-brain barrier and enters your central nervous system in the early stages of infection. It’s very common to find latent or low-level HIV virus throughout our central nervous system (CNS) which includes the brain and spinal cord. With HIV in the CNS it can cause inflammation of the spinal cord and brain. 

The good news is most PLHIV have no cognitive impairment or impaired brain function when HIV enters the brain and the majority of people remain asymptomatic. As you already know, taking antiretroviral medications as prescribed, will suppress HIV and prevent its progression and inflammation.

It’s usually when people live with HIV undiagnosed or not on treatments that symptoms can develop or some people will experience neurological changes. These are usually referred to as HIV Associated Neurocognitive Disorders (HAND). Other health conditions that usually occur as part of normal ageing can make it difficult to work out what’s due to ageing, what’s due to HIV or what is a result of the treatments. Opportunistic infections, like STIs, herpes simplex, PCP, candidiasis of the mouth and throat, and others also increase your risk of inflammation and the development of HAND. 

One of the best things you can do to protect yourself against neurological changes, is to talk about them with your close friends or family and especially your doctor. Everyone misplaces the keys, forgets a name or the occasional appointment. If you’re having regular difficulty remembering things, losing your train of thought, fatigue and mood swings this can possibly indicate something is wrong. 

If your day-to-day functioning, your relationships with others, either at work or at home seem difficult or your lovers or friends comment that you’re out of character, you need to bring it up with your GP or treating doctor. The sooner these problems are addressed, the better you’ll feel and your health will improve.

Positive Life is currently working on developing strategies for HIV mental health and HIV-related neurological conditions. Until Monday 21 September, we’re running a survey ‘HIV and Your Brain’ to learn more about your knowledge and experience of HAND. We ask if you know about it, if you notice it within yourself or others with HIV, and most importantly, if you are talking about it with others. The survey can be accessed here.

If you need further assistance, you can also call Positive Life and we’re available to talk with you about what's going on and help work out ways forward with you.

Also at GNN/SX

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