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HIV virus affects vital parts of brain linked with reward circuit and cognitive skills, finds study

HIV virus affects vital parts of brain linked with reward circuit and cognitive skills, finds study

Diagnosis of a chronic disease like AIDS is enough to increase the stress level and make existing depressive symptoms worse. Once detected, a person is not only bound to undergo lifelong treatment, but also has to face the inevitable stigma and discrimination that comes along. In case of HIV-infected individuals, depression can weaken the body’s defense mechanism and increase mortality rate.

Hitherto, individuals diagnosed with HIV infection or AIDS were known to suffer from chronic depressive symptoms, but it was unclear whether the mental agony was the result of the physical illness or if HIV could have a direct effect on the brain. However, a new study by researchers at the Stellenbosch University (SUN), South Africa explored the direct impact of the virus on the brain during the early stages of the infection.

To help those afflicted with HIV and fight against the disease as a community, the World Health Organization (WHO) observes the World AIDS Day on December 1 every year. The day is dedicated to spreading awareness about AIDS around the world. The theme for the global World AIDS Day 2017 is “Right to health” that aims to reach the goal of universal health coverage leaving no one behind. Under the slogan, “Everybody counts,” WHO advocates high-quality services for those with HIV, including access to affordable care, protection against financial risks and a robust response system that leads to stronger health systems.

HIV impacts motivation, enthusiasm and emotional expression

The team of researchers led by Dr. Stéfan du Plessis used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to compare the brain activity of people with HIV infection with healthy controls while they performed tasks designed to stimulate certain regions of the brain. HIV-positive participants were in good physical and mental health, did not indulge in substance abuse, and had not yet started on antiretroviral treatment (ART).

It was observed that while performing the activities that required higher motor functions, the HIV-positive patients had decreased blood flow in the striatal region of the brain. Researchers also observed little action and blood flow in the nucleus accumbens (NAc or NAcc) region when the patients performed tasks associated with monetary rewards. Referred to as a pleasure center, the NAcc plays a central role in the reward circuit and is involved with aspects concerning motivation, apathy and enthusiasm for life.

Researchers also studied the structure of the frontal cortex of the brain that is responsible for cognitive skills in humans such as judgment, problem-solving, memory, language, emotional expression and sexual behavior. The thinner the cortex, lower the functioning, which was evident in HIV-positive patients. According to Plessis, “Our research shows that HIV does have an impact on the brain and that these low-grade cognitive symptoms are likely not just function loss due to patients feeling sick, tired or depressed.” He is hopeful that the results will inspire future studies or treatment interventions to improve brain function and the overall quality of life in HIV-affected people.

Depression is treatable

Depression among HIV-positive people is often associated with nonadherence to treatments and a high-risk behavior. A life-threatening disorder, dealing with depression along with HIV/AIDS can be difficult. Although a combination of antidepressants and psychotherapy is considered effective in depression treatment among such patients, the stigma associated with the disease often increases chances of a relapse.

Therefore, in addition to traditional modes of treatment, patients must also be provided education and essential life-skills that are necessary to live a depression-free life post the treatment completion.

If you know someone struggling with a mental health disorder, it is time to get him/her professional care and support. At the Recover Mental Health, we can help you find the finest treatment centers across the U.S. Call at our 24/7 helpline 866-593-2339 or chat online with a representative to find the finest treatment center for depression near you.

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