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Mol Neurobiol. 2011 Aug;44(1):102-10. doi: 10.1007/s12035-011-8195-z. Epub 2011 Jul 1.

Drugs of abuse, dopamine, and HIV-associated neurocognitive disorders/HIV-associated dementia.

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  • 1Chemistry and Physiological Systems Research Branch, Division of Basic Neuroscience & Behavioral Research, National Institute on Drug Abuse, National Institutes of Health, 6001 Executive Boulevard Room 4277, MSC 9555, Bethesda, MD 20892-9555, USA. vpurohit@nida.nih.gov


Although the incidence of HIV-associated dementia (HAD) has declined, HIV-associated neurocognitive disorders (HAND) remain a significant health problem despite use of highly active antiretroviral therapy. In addition, the incidence and/or severity of HAND/HAD are increased with concomitant use of drugs of abuse, such as cocaine, marijuana, and methamphetamine. Furthermore, exposure to most drugs of abuse increases brain levels of dopamine, which has been implicated in the pathogenesis of HIV. This review evaluates the potential role of dopamine in the potentiation of HAND/HAD by drugs of abuse. In the brain, multiplication of HIV in infected macrophages/microglia could result in the release of HIV proteins such as gp120 and Tat, which can bind to and impair dopamine transporter (DAT) functions, leading to elevated levels of dopamine in the dopaminergic synapses in the early asymptomatic stage of HIV infection. Exposure of HIV-infected patients to drugs of abuse, especially cocaine and methamphetamine, can further increase synaptic levels of dopamine via binding to and subsequently impairing the function of DAT. This accumulated synaptic dopamine can diffuse out and activate adjacent microglia through binding to dopamine receptors. The activation of microglia may result in increased HIV replication as well as increased production of inflammatory mediators such as tumor necrosis factor (TNF)-alpha and chemokines. Increased HIV replication can lead to increased brain viral load and increased shedding of HIV proteins, gp120 and Tat. These proteins, as well as TNF-alpha, can induce cell death of adjacent dopaminergic neurons via apoptosis. Autoxidation and metabolism of accumulated synaptic dopamine can lead to generation of reactive oxygen species (hydrogen peroxide), quinones, and semiquinones, which can also induce apoptosis of neurons. Increased cell death of dopaminergic neurons can eventually lead to dopamine deficit that may exacerbate the severity and/or accelerate the progression of HAND/HAD.

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