Human immunodeficiency virus-1 infection of the nervous system: an autopsy study of 268 adult, pediatric, and fetal brains

Hum Pathol. 1991 Jul;22(7):700-10. doi: 10.1016/0046-8177(91)90293-x.


The central nervous system (CNS) of 221 adults and 31 infants or children with the acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) was examined with immunocytochemistry for infectious agents and for human immunodeficiency virus-1 (HIV-1) antigen (gp41). Since the major risk factor in this population was intravenous drug abuse, there were more female and pediatric patients than in other neuropathology autopsy series. Although children had a different spectrum of pathologic changes, including less frequent opportunistic infections, women did not differ from men in terms of types or incidence of opportunistic infections, vascular disease, neoplasia, and subacute AIDS encephalitis (SAE). Subacute AIDS encephalitis was detected in 26% of adult and 48% of pediatric brains. Immunocytochemical analysis of 100 adult and 20 pediatric brains revealed gp41 immunoreactivity in 78% and 40%, respectively. Virtually all adult brains with SAE had gp41 immunoreactivity in macrophages and microglia. Even brains with no significant pathology had frequent gp41 immunoreactivity, especially in the basal ganglia. In pediatric brains, including cases with SAE, gp41 immunoreactivity was less abundant, suggesting the possibility of latent infection or viral clearance. Spinal cords with vacuolar myelopathy or corticospinal tract degeneration had only rare gp41-positive cells. Brains from 16 aborted fetuses from HIV-1-seropositive women were all negative for gp41 immunoreactivity, but 12 brains were positive for HIV-1 by the polymerase chain reaction. These results may indicate that HIV-1 infection in fetal brains is below the limits of detection of immunocytochemistry. The differences noted between adults and children suggest that adults more often have productive CNS HIV-1 infection.

MeSH terms

  • AIDS Dementia Complex / pathology
  • Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome / complications*
  • Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome / immunology
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Brain / pathology*
  • Brain Diseases / complications
  • Brain Diseases / pathology*
  • Cerebral Infarction / complications
  • Cerebral Infarction / pathology
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Female
  • HIV Envelope Protein gp41 / analysis
  • HIV-1*
  • Humans
  • Immunohistochemistry
  • Infant
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Opportunistic Infections / complications
  • Opportunistic Infections / pathology


  • HIV Envelope Protein gp41