We investigated the role of autophagy in HIV-infected subjects with neurocognitive impairment (NCI) ± HIV encephalitis (HIVE), many of which had a history of polysubstance abuse/dependence, using post-mortem brain tissues to determine whether differences in autophagy related factors may be more associated with NCI or NCI-encephalitis. Using qRT-PCR, we detected significant differences in gene expression levels with SQSTM1, LAMP1 higher in HIV-infected subjects without NCI while ATG5, SQSTM1 were then lower in HIV infection/NCI and ATG7, SQSTM1 being higher in NCI-HIVE. Immunohistochemical labeling of these autophagy associated proteins (also including Beclin 1 and LC3B) in Iba1-positive microglial cells showed generally higher immunoreactivity in the NCI and NCI-HIVE groups with more focal vs. diffuse patterns of expression in the NCI-HIVE group. Furthermore, analysis of microarray data from these same subjects found significantly higher levels of LAMP1 in NCI-HIVE compared to uninfected subjects in the basal ganglia. Finally, we tested the effect of supernatant from HIV-1-infected microglia and HIV-1 Tat protein in combination with morphine on neurons in vitro and found opposing events with both significant inhibition of autophagic flux and reduced dendrite length for morphine and supernatant treatment while Tat and morphine exposure resulted in lower autophagic activity at an earlier time point and higher levels in the later. These results suggest autophagy genes and their corresponding proteins may be differentially regulated at the transcriptional, translational, and post-translational levels in the brain during various stages of the HIV disease and that infected individuals exposed to morphine can experience mixed signaling of autophagic activity which could lead to more severe NCI than those without opioid use.
Keywords: HIV encephalitis; HIV-associated neurocognitive disorders; autophagy; microarray; microglia; morphine; neuron.