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Am J Pathol. 1995 May; 146(5): 1121–1130.
PMCID: PMC1869292

Evidence of apoptotic cell death in HIV encephalitis.


The mechanism of cell death in the brains of patients with acquired immune deficiency syndrome was examined in 15 cases, 8 of whom had human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) encephalitis, and in 8 control cases. Postmortem formalin-fixed, paraffin-embedded sections were prepared for routine histology and immunohistochemistry to detect cell-specific antigens. Apoptosis was detected by its morphology and by in situ end labeling of its characteristic oligonucleosomal fragments. Combined in situ end labeling and immunohistochemistry identified specific cell types. Six acquired immune deficiency syndrome brains, 5 of which had HIV encephalitis, contained positive nuclei by in situ end labeling. Co-labeling studies identified the cells as neurons, reactive astrocytes, and, rarely, the multinucleated giant cells of HIV encephalitis. The only control with nuclei positive by in situ end labeling had hepatic encephalopathy and Alzheimer type II astrocytes; the location and absence of cell-specific markers suggested a glial origin for the labeled cells. These results demonstrate that at least some neuronal and astrocytic death in HIV infection occurs by apoptosis. Its stimuli are unknown, but likely candidates include tumor necrosis factor or HIV viral products. Additionally, we hypothesize that apoptotic death of reactive astrocytes may be a normal mechanism whereby the brain removes an excess number of astrocytes that have proliferated after certain types of brain injury.

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