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HIV Drug, Anti-Retroviral, Leads to Cognitive Impairment

Update Date: Sep 28, 2012 09:32 AM EDT

A popular HIV drug known as anti-retroviral, like many other drugs, has daunting side-effects, though more preferable than the disease that the drug is treating. However new research suggests that those taking the drug are being subjected to long-term cognitive impairment.

A study conducted by researchers from John Hopkins medical center reveals that nearly 50 percent of persons taking the medication due to HIV can or will experience some form of brain damage that can effect their ability to operate heavy machinery, work and/or participate in other social activities.

Norman J. Haughey, Ph.D., an associate professor of neurology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine cautions that people with HIV despite these findings, must not stop taking their medication. However, he adds, practitioners, "need to be very careful about the types of anti-retrovirals we prescribe, and take a closer look at their long-term effects. Drug toxicities could be a major contributing factor to cognitive impairment in patients with HIV.

Anti-retroviral or Efavirenz is known to be very effective in controlling the spread of the virus, namely in targeting reservoirs of the virus that build up in the brain.

To ensure that the drug was doing nothing other than targeting and suppressing these microbial pockets of stored HIV, researchers enrolled a group of long time HIV patients into the NorthEastern AIDS Dementia  study and took blood samples.

They found that subjects' brain cells had high levels of toxic metabolites that leads to loss of cellular spines that aid in neurological efficiency such as memory, perception and logic.

However, researchers add some good news: In the case of efavirenz, a small modification to the drug's chemical make-up can black its toxic effects on brain cells without suppressing its ability to suppress the virus.

"Finding and stating a problem is one thing, but it's another to be able to say we have found this problem and here is an easy fix," Haughey says.

Researchers say this case, and others like it, remind physicians and researchers that though they are creating significant medical advancements, every drug can be improved and never to get too comfortable with what other generations of scientists have given you. 

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