The presence of neuropsychological disturbances in HIV-positive, pre-symptomatic individuals is a controversial issue. Neuroimaging studies have not shown brain atrophy or hyperintensity in the white matter, whereas proton magnetic resonance spectroscopy has revealed some abnormality of cerebral biochemistry. Using an antibody to β-amyloid precursor protein (β-APP), we previously demonstrated frequent and widespread axonal changes in the brains of AIDS patients. In this study, we extended the use of β-APP to asymptomatic patients in order to establish a possible morphological correlation with neuropsychological disorders. Brain samples from 29 patients were examined. Results showed bundles of β-APP-positive axons in 8/29 cases (27%). The changes, seen in both superficial and deep white matter, were either focal or diffuse, could not be visualized by silver or ubiquitin stains, and did not coexist with any change in distribution or morphology of astrocytes and microglial cells. We conclude that in HIV-positive asymptomatic individuals, axonal changes: (a) may be related to the state of immune activation with consequent presence of toxic substances, including cytokines, observed in these patients; (b) may represent mild changes that could undergo repair, unless other pathological events, such as the supervening of the AIDS stage and the specific encephalitis, make them permanent.

Author notes

This study was supported by the Brain Research Trust (SFA and FS), Action Research (MG), and the Camden & Islington Community Health Services Trust (RFM). Authors would like to thank Professor MJG Harrison for helpful discussion.