Objective: HIV infection sets off an immediate immune response and inflammatory cascade that can lead to neuronal injury and cognitive impairment, but the relationship between immune markers, regional brain volumes, and cognition remains understudied in HIV-infected adults.
Methods: Cross-sectional associations were examined between serum immune markers of activation (neopterin) and inflammation (interleukin [IL]-1β, IL-6, tumor necrosis factor alpha, and C-reactive protein) with regional brain volumes (cortical, subcortical, total gray matter, hippocampus, and subfields) and cognition in 66 HIV-infected, virally suppressed, adults who underwent 3.0-T MRI as part of the Research Core of the Rush Center of Excellence on Disparities in HIV and Aging. Immune markers were assayed from frozen plasma, values were entered into linear regression models as predictors of regional brain volumes, and interactive effects of immune response and regional brain volumes on cognition were examined.
Results: No inflammatory marker was associated with any regional brain volume. Higher neopterin level was associated with lower total hippocampal, presubiculum, and cornu ammonis (CA) subfield volumes. Higher neopterin level and lower total hippocampal volume were independently associated with lower episodic memory, and neopterin level fully mediated the effect of hippocampal atrophy on episodic memory. Higher neopterin levels were associated with lower presubiculum, CA1, and CA4/dentate volumes and lower semantic memory, working memory, and global cognition.
Conclusion: Immune activation in response to HIV infection, measured by neopterin, has a deleterious and targeted effect on regional brain structure, which can be visualized with clinically available MRI measures of hippocampus and its subfields, and this effect is associated with lower cognitive function.