International AIDS Society


Now 12320 members from 182 countries | 

HIV and Illicit Drugs Interact to Affect Verbal Learning and Memory

Author: Mark Mascolini


18 July 2013

HIV infection and illicit drug use—usually smoking crack cocaine—appeared to have a compound negative impact on verbal learning and memory in a study of almost 1400 women with and without HIV in the US Women’s Interagency HIV Study (WIHS).

Research shows that HIV infection and illicit drug use can each contribute to diminished cognitive performance. To examine the impact of HIV and illicit drugs, alone and together, on cognitive function, WIHS researchers studied 952 women with HIV and 443 HIV-negative women with a socioeconomic background similar to the HIV-positive women. All women completed the Hopkins Verbal Learning Test-Revised and the Stroop Test of processing speed and executive function.

The WIHS investigators divided women into three groups: 140 with recent drug use (cocaine or heroin in the past 6 months), 651 former drug users (lifetime cocaine or heroin use but not in the past 6 months), and 604 nonusers (no lifetime use of cocaine or heroin).

Study participants averaged 42.8 years in age and 64% were African American. The most frequent recent drug use pattern was daily or weekly crack cocaine smoking.

HIV infection and recent illicit drug use were both linked to significantly worse verbal learning and memory scores on the Hopkins Verbal Learning Test-Revised (P < 0.05). Recent illicit drug use (compared with nonuse) had a negative effect on verbal learning and memory only in HIV-positive women (P < 0.01), a result indicating an interaction between HIV status and recent drug use.

The study yielded no evidence of an interaction between HIV status and illicit drug use on processing speed or executive function measured by the Stroop test.

The WIHS team proposes that “the interaction between HIV serostatus and recent illicit drug use on verbal learning and memory suggests a potential synergistic neurotoxicity that may affect the neural circuitry underlying performance on these tasks.”

Source: Vanessa J. Meyer, Leah H. Rubin, Eileen Martin, Kathleen M. Weber, Mardge H. Cohen, Elizabeth T. Golub, Victor Valcour, Mary A. Young, Howard Crystal, Kathryn Anastos, Bradley E. Aouizerat, Joel Milam, Pauline M. Maki. HIV and recent illicit drug use interact to affect verbal memory in women. JAIDS. 2013; 63: 67-76.

For the study abstract

(Downloading the complete article requires a subscription to JAIDS or an online payment; the abstract is free.)