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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University September 5, 2006 | Vol. 36 No. 1
JHU Center to Focus on HIV-linked Brain Disorders, Treatment

By Jeff Ventura
Johns Hopkins Medicine

Scientists at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine have launched a new, federally funded collaborative research unit to develop novel treatments for HIV-related memory and other cognitive disorders.

The research initiative at Hopkins is one of seven sites funded by the National Institute of Mental Health to study cognitive disorders linked to HIV/AIDS or to conduct behavioral approaches to reduce HIV transmission.

While the incidence of HIV-related dementia has dropped by an estimated 40 percent to 50 percent in the United States thanks, in large part, to effective antiviral drug cocktails, evidence is mounting that these drugs may fail to completely protect HIV-positive people from memory and learning problems. In fact, studies from the Johns Hopkins HIV neuroscience group have shown that about 30 percent of people on the antiviral drug cocktails, known as HAART, have measurable cognitive dysfunction.

"The good news is that we have drugs that keep people with HIV and AIDS physically healthy for a much longer time than was possible just a decade ago," said Justin C. McArthur, a professor of neurology, pathology and epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. "The bad news is that the prevalence of cognitive problems seems to be on the rise as these individuals survive longer. We need to know why, and what we can do better."

McArthur and his research team plan on using the NIMH's $1.25 million first-year grant to investigate why there are still no effective treatments specifically targeted at HIV dementia.

As it has been clearly demonstrated that "oxidative stress" — the accumulation of toxic forms of oxygen — plays a major role in many neurological disorders, including aging, stroke and dementia, oxidative stress is the major focus of Hopkins' research for new drugs.

The Hopkins center also will attempt to design and promote the wider use of more sensitive screening techniques for HIV dementia and to develop novel surrogate markers of disease activity and progression. It will also stimulate new research by funding pilot grants designed to attract new researchers into the field. New techniques for the improved postgraduate education of medical providers in the neurological manifestations of HIV/AIDS will also be organized through the center.

McArthur will co-direct the center with investigators Joseph Steiner and Avindra Nath. Other members of the research team will be Ned Sacktor, Min Li, Norman Haughey, Scott Zeger, Richard Moore, John Bartlett, Robert Cotter, Robert Cole, Wenxue Li and Chris Zink. The center will have an advisory council that will include several other prominent figures from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, including Richard Johnson, former chair of the Department of Neurology; Sol Snyder, former chair of the Department of Neuroscience; Jeffrey Rothstein, a professor of neurology; and Chi Dang, vice dean for research.


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