Effects of chronic HIV-1 Tat exposure in the CNS: heightened vulnerability of males versus females to changes in cell numbers, synaptic integrity, and behavior

Brain Struct Funct. 2015 Mar;220(2):605-23. doi: 10.1007/s00429-013-0676-6. Epub 2013 Dec 19.


HIV-associated damage to the central nervous system results in cognitive and motor deficits. Anti-retroviral therapies reduce the severity of symptoms, yet the proportion of patients affected has remained the same or increased. Although approximately half of HIV-infected patients worldwide are women, the question of whether biological sex influences outcomes of HIV infection has received little attention. We explored this question for both behavioral and cellular/morphologic endpoints, using a transgenic mouse that inducibly expresses HIV-1 Tat in the brain. After 3 months of HIV-1 Tat exposure, both sexes showed similar reduced open field ambulation. Male Tat(+) mice also showed reduced forelimb grip strength and enhanced anxiety in a light-dark box assay. Tat(+) males did not improve over 12 weeks of repeated rotarod testing, indicating a motor memory deficit. Male mice also had more cellular deficits in the striatum. Neither sex showed a change in volume or total neuron numbers. Both had equally reduced oligodendroglial populations and equivalent microglial increases. However, astrogliosis and microglial nitrosative stress were higher in males. Dendrites on medium spiny neurons in male Tat(+) mice had fewer spines, and levels of excitatory and inhibitory pre- and post-synaptic proteins were disrupted. Our results predict sex as a determinant of HIV effects in brain. Increased behavioral deficits in males correlated with glial activation and synaptic damage, both of which are implicated in cognitive/motor impairments in patients. Tat produced by residually infected cells despite antiretroviral therapy may be an important determinant of the synaptodendritic instability and behavioral deficits accompanying chronic infection.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Anxiety / metabolism
  • Astrocytes / metabolism
  • Cell Count
  • Corpus Striatum / metabolism*
  • Corpus Striatum / ultrastructure*
  • Dendrites / pathology
  • Female
  • Male
  • Mice
  • Mice, Transgenic
  • Microglia / metabolism
  • Neurons / metabolism*
  • Neurons / ultrastructure*
  • Oligodendroglia / metabolism
  • Rotarod Performance Test
  • Sex Factors
  • Synapses / metabolism
  • Synapses / ultrastructure
  • tat Gene Products, Human Immunodeficiency Virus / genetics
  • tat Gene Products, Human Immunodeficiency Virus / metabolism*


  • tat Gene Products, Human Immunodeficiency Virus