Neurological and developmental effects of HIV and AIDS in children and adolescents

Ment Retard Dev Disabil Res Rev. 2001;7(3):211-6. doi: 10.1002/mrdd.1029.


HIV-related encephalopathy is an important problem in vertically infected children with HIV. Infected infants may manifest early, catastrophic encephalopathy, with loss of brain growth, motor abnormalities, and cognitive dysfunction. Even without evidence of AIDS, infected infants score lower than serorevertors on developmental measures, particularly language acquisition. Children with perinatal or later transfusion-related infection generally are roughly comparable developmentally to their peers until late in their course. Symptoms similar to adult AIDS dementia complex are occasionally seen in adolescents with advanced AIDS, including dementia, bradykinesia, and spasticity. Opportunistic CNS infections such as toxoplasmosis and progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy are less common in children and adolescents than in adults. Increasing evidence suggests that aggressive antiretroviral treatment may halt or even reverse encephalopathy. Neuroimaging changes may precede or follow clinical manifestations, and include early lenticulostriate vessel echogenicity on cranial ultrasound, calcifying microangiopathy on CT scan, and/or white matter lesions and central atrophy on MRI. Differential diagnosis of neurological dysfunction in an HIV-infected infant includes the effects of maternal substance abuse, other CNS congenital infections, and other causes of early static encephalopathy. Initial entry of HIV into the nervous system occurs very early in infection. The risk of clinical HIV encephalopathy increases with very early age of infection and with high viral loads. Virus is found in microglia and brain derived macrophages, not neurons. The neuronal effect of HIV is probably indirect, with various cytokines implicated. Apoptosis is the presumed mechanism of damage to neurons by HIV.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome / complications*
  • Adolescent
  • Brain / pathology
  • Brain / physiopathology*
  • Child
  • Developmental Disabilities / etiology*
  • Developmental Disabilities / physiopathology*
  • HIV Seropositivity / complications*
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging