Neurological Complications of HIV

Original Editor - Cindy John-Chu

Top Contributors - Cindy John-Chu, Melissa Coetsee, Kim Jackson and Nupur Smit Shah  

Introduction[edit | edit source]

The Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is a virus that attacks cells of the body's immune system, leaving those affected prone to opportunistic infections.[1] HIV infection can also lead to various neurological complications as a result of these infections or the virus itself. HIV belongs to a class of viruses (the lentiviruses) that are known increase the risk of developing chronic neurologic diseases in their human hosts.[2]The video below explains how HIV can cause cell damage, as well as how HIV increases the risk of infections, which can also lead to neurological complications.

Epidemiology[edit | edit source]

Neurological complications related to HIV can occur throughout the various stages of the infection, but is more common in the advanced stages - i.e. when HIV has progressed to AIDS.[3] Between 40 and 70% of people infected with HIV will develop symptomatic neurology.[4]

In the African region, the prevalence and mortality of neurological conditions in people living with HIV (PLWH) is very high, with up to 75% of PLWH presenting with neurological complications, and central nervous system (CNS) disorders are responsible for >20% of deaths.[5] Late clinical presentation, advanced immunosuppression and a high burden of infectious diseases make PLWH in Africa particularly vulnerable to developing neurological complications.[5][4]

Although the incidence and survival related to neurological disease in PLWH has improved significantly since the introduction of ART, mortality remains high and morbidity is of increasing concern.[6]CNS conditions can result in long hospital stays, reduced quality of life and significant disability.[6]

Aetiology[edit | edit source]

HIV can result in neurological complications through various mechanisms, including:

  1. Direct HIV infection: HIV does not directly attack the cells of the nervous system (neurons), but it causes significant inflammation (chemokines and cytokines released by infected microglia and astrocytes) which can cause damage to the central and peripheral nervous system.[7]This cascade of inflammation can lead to encephalitis which is characterised by neuronal loss.[4] Direct HIV infection is typically responsible for HIV-associated neurocognitive disorder (HAND), distal sensory neuropathy (DSN) and vacuolar myelopathy.[5]
  2. Opportunistic infections: The nervous system can also be affected by immunosuppression-related infections. These infections are typically responsible for altered level of consciousness, meningitis, stroke, seizures, myelopathy and neuropathy.[5][4]Most CNS infections occur when CD4 counts are less than 200.
  3. Associated diseases: Such as specific cancers that are associated with HIV infection, or stroke as a result of increased cardiovascular risk factors.
  4. Anti-retroviral medicine: Less common with newer Anti-Retroviral Treatment (ART), but Nucleoside (NRTI) class ART is associated with neuropathies, and Zidovudine can cause myopathy. Efavirenz is associated with poor neurocognitive performance and neuropsychological dysfunction.[8] Initiating ART with untreated underlying infection can also lead to immune reconstitution inflammatory syndrome (IRIS).
  5. Nutrient Deficiencies: PLWH often present with vit B12 deficiency, which may contribute to neurological disease.

PLWH who present with neurological complaints alone, tend to have higher CD4 counts and present with neurological conditions associated with opportunistic infections. On the other hand, PLWH with low CD4 counts often present with neurological and systemic illness, in which case the conditions are often caused by HIV itself.[5]

Diagnostic Tools[edit | edit source]

Diagnosis is often challenging as presentation tends to be atypical and multiple causes may co-exist. Furthermore, investigations often yield confusing results and ART may also alter the way CNS conditions manifest.[6]

  • Lumbar puncture: Used to withdraw cerebrospinal fluid (CSF). The opening pressure and amount of proteins and lymphocytes present, as well as glucose levels, can help with identifying the underlying cause. CSF may be normal in patients with advanced immunosuppression despite underlying infection, otherwise elevated lymphocytes and proteins usually indicate CNS infection. CSF can also be cultured to identify specific organisms.[5]
  • X-rays: A chest x-ray may be indicated when tuberculosis is suspected to be an underlying cause of infective processes. Spinal x-rays can identify TB of the spine and malignant growths in patients that present with myelopathy.
  • Neuroimaging: Including CT-brain and MRI - can identify infarction, meningeal enhancement, brain atrophy, lymphomas, tuberculomas and other focal lesions.[5]CSF and clinical findings can often be non-specific, in which case neuroimaging can be very useful in differential diagnosis.
  • Biopsies: Used to differentiate lymphoma from toxoplasmosis and progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy (PML).[9]
  • CD4 count: Knowing the CD4 count of a patient can help to narrow down the differential diagnosis. Patients with CD4 counts >200 are more less likely to have neurological conditions caused by HIV itself.
Differential Diagnosis based on CD4 count
Seroconversion and/or CD4 >500 CD4 >200-<500 CD4 <200
Aseptic meningitis


Transverse myelitis


TB Meningitis


Distal sensory poly-neuropathy (DSPN)

Mild neurocognitive disorder


TB Meningitis

Cryptococcal Meningitis



CNS Lymphoma

Vacuolar Myelopathy


Ischaemic CVA

Viral Encaphilitis (Herpes or CMV)

Viral radiculopathy

DSPN = Distal Sensory Polyneuropathy

HAND = HIV-associated Neurocognitive Disorder PML = Progressive Multifocal Leukoencephalopathy CMV = Cytomegalovirus CVA = Cerebrovascular Accident (stroke)

Clinical Presentation[edit | edit source]

Signs and symptoms of neurological compilations vary depending on the specific pathology. We will explore the common neurological complications in more detail, but below is a list of some neurological signs and symptoms often seen in PLWH[5]:

  • Seizures - usually related to opportunistic infections that cause meningitis or encephalitis; occasionally seizures may be related to ART medication and hyponatraemia[5]
  • Reduced level of consciousness
  • Cognitive impairment
  • Myelopathy - spastic paraparesis
  • Radiculopathy - flaccid paraparesis
  • Hemiparesis - as a result of cerebral lesions, infarction or haemorrhage
  • Nerve palsies - cranial nerve palsies can occur as a result of meningitis
  • Headaches, nausea, neck stiffness - typical signs of meningitis
  • Confusion and lethargy

Neurological Conditions[edit | edit source]

Overview[edit | edit source]

The following pathologies are the most common underlying causes of neurological disorders in PLWH.[6]

  • Meningitis (inflammation of the meninges) - can be caused by HIV itself or by opportunistic infections
  • Encephalitis (inflammation of the brain) - can be caused by HIV itself or by opportunistic infections
  • Space occupying lesions - usually caused by CNS lymphoma, PML, TB or Toxoplasmosis
  • Myelopathy - caused by viral/bacterial infections or HIV itself
  • Radiculopathy
  • Peripheral Neuropathy - related to HIV itself or certain ART

Causes[edit | edit source]

HIV is associated with various CNS and PNS complications. The table below presents some of the main causes and associated conditions.

Common Causes and Conditions
Category Description & Specific Conditions[7] Prevalence[5][4]
Opportunistic infections
Fungal infections Cryptococcal meningitis, caused by a fungus, can lead to inflammation in the central nervous system Most common CNS opportunistic infection in HIV in Africa; Frequency of 6-7%
Bacterial infections TB is the most frequent opportunistic infection in HIV in Africa and can lead to TB meningitis (TBM), myelo-radiculopathy and tuberculomas in the brain. Other bacterial infections can also cause meningitis. TB can also result in myelopathy if disseminated.

Neurosyphilis can also develop in untreated syphilis, causing neurological damage.

TBM is the second leading causes of meningitis in PLWH in Africa with a frequency of 6%; TB is the most common cause of myelopathy in HIV in South Africa[4]
Parasitic infections Toxoplasmosis encephalitis can develop as a result of a parasitic infection (toxoplasma). The parasite can be dormant and reactivated with immunosuppression, resulting in focal brain lesions. Most common CNS opportunistic infection in high income countries (HICs)
Viral infections Common opportunistic viral infections that affect the nervous system include Cytomegalovirus (CMV), Herpes virus and JC Polyomavirus (JCV). Each of these can result in unique neurological manifestations (including encephalitis, transverse myelitis and radiculopathy) with JCV causing Progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy (PML) Not well documented
Direct HIV infection
Aseptic Meningitis Although this can be caused by other viral infection, HIV can also be the primary cause. May be asymptomatic in early HIV.
HIV-associated neurocognitive disorder (HAND) Impaired cognitive function and memory loss as a result of brain atrophy in advanced HIV. Includes mild impairment and HIV-associated dementia. Frequency varies from 18-80% in Africa
Peripheral Neuropathies Damage to peripheral nerves can lead to polyneuropathy, mononeuropathy or inflammatory neuropathy. Certain ART can also cause neuropathy. Frequency of about 36-60%
Vacuolar myelopathy HIV itself can lead to tiny holes in the nerve fibres of the spinal cord, resulting in myelopathy Accounts for 2% of neurological disease in PLWH in South Africa[4]
Other Causes
Lymphoma Lymphomas (tumours) can develop in the brain of people living with HIV (PLWH). CNS lymphoma seems to be associated with the Ebstein-Barr virus[6] Mostly in advanced HIV, and generally low incidence
Stroke HIV increases the risk of cerebrovascular incidents, due to increased cardiovascular risk factors, elevated inflammation or often associated meningitis Affects about 2%of PLWH; more common with low CD4 counts
Psychological conditions PLWH often suffer from anxiety and/or depression and may have concurrent psychiatric disorders See Mental Health and HIV
Autoimmune mediated disorders PLWH have an increased risk of acute/chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy (such as Guillain-Barre), myasthenia gravis and polymyositis Uncommon - mostly occurs at seroconversion

Aseptic Meningitis[edit | edit source]

Meningeal inflammation occurs as a result of HIV crossing the blood-brain barrier (aseptic meningitis), or as a result of an inflammatory response to an opportunistic infection.[4]Typical meningitis symptoms include headache, fever, neck stiffness, nausea. Cranial neuropathies and seizures may also occur.[4]

Aseptic meningitis (AM) refers to meningeal inflammations without a typical bacterial cause. It can be caused by HIV itself (especially during seroconversion and at late stage disease) and can present as an acute symptomatic or chronic asymptomatic condition. Many PLWH (up to two thirds) live with asymptomatic AM. Other infectious causes include other viruses (HSV/ CMV), fungi (cryptococcal) and tuberculosis.

Cryptococcal meningitis[edit | edit source]

Cryptococcal infection is the leading cause of meningitis in PLWH. It usually presents with a slow onset of symptoms of meningitis, including headache, fever, nausea and seizures. Neck stiffness and cranial nerve fallout may also be present. The case fatality rate (CFR) in Africa is 35-68%.[5]The main risk factors for death include CD4 counts <50, starting ART too early after CMV infection and lack of access to fungicidal treatment.[5]

TB Meningitis[edit | edit source]

Signs and symptoms are very similar to viral meningitis and usually includes headache, fever, nausea and altered level of consciousness. The CFR of TBM in Africa is 59.9%.[5] Multi-drug resistant TB is more common in PLWH and, if present, increases the mortality of TBM. The main risk factors for death include CD4 counts <50, starting ART too early while on TB treatment and advanced immunosuppression.[5]

Progressive Multifocal Leukoencephalopathy (PML)[edit | edit source]

PML is a progressive, demyelinating disease of the CNS caused by the JC virus and it often mimics the CSF findings of aseptic meningitis.[5] The JC virus can remain latent in a human host, but acquired immunosuppression in HIV can lead to reactivation of the virus. Symptoms include progressive deterioration of speech, cognition and motor function. The exact presentation differs depending on which area of white matter is affected, but ataxia and aphasia are common. The prognosis of PML is poor and death often occurs within 1-9 months. It usually only occurs in ART-naïve patients and although initiating ART will not cure PML, it may prolong survival. It is also possible for PML to be cause by IRIS in patients already on ART.[10]

HIV Associated Neurocognitive Disorder (HAND)[edit | edit source]

HAND is caused by the direct effect of the HIV virus, and not as a result of opportunistic infections. HAND includes a spectrum of neurocognitive impairment, ranging from asymptomatic and mild impairment to HIV-associated dementia (the most severe form of HAND). It is also sometimes referred to as HIV Encephalopathy.

PLWH who have HAND often present with reduced motor speed, declining cognitive function, behavioural changes and memory loss.[5]Although ART can decrease the burden of HAND, milder symptoms my persist. For more detail see this PP page on HAND.

HIV-associated Myelopathies[edit | edit source]

Myelopathies are not as common as encephalopathies, with a frequency of about 5-10%.[4] Myelopathies are mostly caused by infections or neoplasms, but vacuolar myelopathy and HIV transverse myelitis are manifestations of primary HIV infection.[3] Although there is no existing treatment for vacuolar myelopathy, most of the infectious myelopathies can improve with organism specific treatment.

Vacuolar Myelopathy[edit | edit source]

Vacuolar Myelopathy (VM) occurs as a direct consequence of HIV infection affecting the spinal cord. VM only occurs in cases of advanced immunosuppression and untreated HIV. It is characterised by progressive spastic paraparesis and hyperreflexia with bladder involvement. Sensory ataxia and co-existing distal sensory neuropathy is common, and a clear spinal cord sensory level is rare.[4] [5]The use of ART does not seem to decrease established VM and preventions (early ART initiation) is therefore important.[5]

Infection-related Myelopathy[edit | edit source]

Opportunistic infections that can cause myelopathies are listed below.[3]

  • Viral: Cytomegalovirus (CMV), Herpes simplex virus (HSV), JC virus, Varicella-zoster virus (VZV) - can cause transverse myelitis
  • Bacterial: Tuberculosis (TB), Pseudomonas, Syphilis, Cryptococcus
  • Fungal/ Parasitic: Aspergillus ,Toxoplasma gondii - not very common

The most common causes of myelopathy in PLWH are TB, Herpes and CMV. Some of these infections can also cause Radiculopathy. Radiculopathy is usually confined to the lumbosacral nerve roots and results in flaccid paraplegia with areflexia and urinary incontinence. The main causes are usually TB (through granulomas or Pott's disease) or CMV (usually only in advanced stages.[5]

HIV-related Neuropathy[edit | edit source]

Neuropathies can occur during all stages of HIV infection and occur as a result of the virus itself, and occasionally because of ARV toxicity (although this has become less common with newer ARVs). Common neuropathies include:

  • Distal Sensory Neuropathy: Most common type of neuropathy, affecting the distal extremities in a symmetrical pattern. Paraesthesia and neuropathic pain are the main symptoms[5].
  • Polyneuropathy: Affects multiple sensory and motor nerves in the distal limbs, with similar symptoms DSN, but with associated weakness
  • Mononeuropathy: The most common is Bell's Palsy[5]
  • Inflammatory neuropathy: Results in condition similar to Guillain-Barre Syndrome, or isolated nerve pain if only certain nerves are affected[7]

It is important to note that vitamin B6 and B12 deficiency (often associated with HIV) can also contribute to neuropathic symptoms. For more detail see the page on HIV-related Neuropathy.

CNS Complications in Children[edit | edit source]

In children with HIV, neurological conditions are more often causes by HIV itself, and less commonly by opportunistic infections. HIV prevents the development of the blood-brain barrier, rendering an infected child's brain susceptibility to neuro-invasion, with progressive HIV encephalopathy (PHE) as a result. In immature, developing brains, the effects of neurological complications can be devastating and are hard to treat once established. It is therefore critical to focus on preventing HIV transmission to children.

The table below summarises the HIV-related neurological complications in children:

PHE Static Encephalopathy CNS infections Other
Aquired microcephaly - stagnating or decreasing head circumference in children <2 years

Progressive motor dysfunction with spasticity - milestones are lost or not achieved

Neurodevelopmental decline - cognitive deficit affecting language and concentration

Poor prognosis - usually gradual deterioration or rapid decline

Similar presentation to PHE, but non-progressive

Spontaneous improvement may occur

Most commonly caused CMV/TB/ Candida leading to encephalitis or meningitis. Seizures are more common in children with HIV. Uncontrolled seizures can result in neuronal damage.

Cerebral infarction and haemorrhage can occur, but less frequent than in adults

Medical Management[edit | edit source]

Although each neurological condition will have unique treatment strategies, an important first step is to ensure that a person living with HIV is virally suppressed - i.e. receiving and adhering to ART medication. A study conducted in South Africa indicated a 40% decrease in TB Meningitis following expanded ART programs[11].

In patients who need to be initiated on ART, with a concurrent opportunistic infection, extreme care needs to be taken to prevent IRIS.

The table below summarises the additional treatment strategies for the more common neurological complications of HIV:

Condition Strategies
Cryptococcal Meningitis Targeted Cryptococcus screening during HIV screening and pre-emptive therapy (Flucanozole) if positive and CD4<100[5]; Amphotericin-based treatment regimens

Defer starting ART for 4-6 weeks after CM treatment[5]

TB Meningitis Intermittent (6 month) isoniazid chemoprophylaxis

Improved TBM case finding and diagnosis Defer starting ART for 4-6 weeks after starting TBM treatment

Toxoplasmosis Encephalitis Screening for toxoplasmosis

Chemoprophylaxis with trimethoprim-sulphamethoxazole until CD4 is >200[5] ART initiation 2 weeks after the start of treatment

Neuropathies Neuropathic pain medication can help to relieve pain related to neuropathies.

Rehabilitation[edit | edit source]

Rehabilitation strategies are essential to improve quality of life, function and to prevent further cognitive impairment.[8]Neurological rehabilitation strategies harness the concept of neuroplasticity to restore/retrain function and cognition. Rehabilitation should always be based on a thorough assessment and should be personalised and patient specific - this is especially important considering the wide range of neurological presentations associated with HIV.

See also Exercise for People Living with HIV; Physiotherapy Interventions in HIV

Role of the Multi-disciplinary Team (MDT)[edit | edit source]

Team member Possible role
Medical Doctor Investigations, including blood and CSF tests and neuroimaging

Altering ART regime as needed in some cases of neuropathy

Accurate diagnosis and treatment of any opportunistic infections

Additional prescriptions for concomitant symptoms/conditions such as pain, depression and seizures, with ARV drug interactions in mind

Management of increased CSF pressure

Ensuring delayed ART (4-6 weeks) when infections are present, to prevent IRIS[5]

Psychologist/ Counsellor Counselling of family members when a patient presents with advanced neurological condition

Counselling and CBT in cases of non-adherence to ARVs

Psychotherapeutic interventions for anxiety and depression

Occupational Therapist Assessment and monitoring of cognitive function

Neurcognitive training

Home adaptations to improve safety

Caregiver education and support

Neurological rehabilitation on non-progressive conditions

Wheelchair seating for patients who are non-ambulatory

Physiotherapist Pain management strategies for neuropathic pain

Exercise to improve function

Neurological rehabilitation in non-progressive conditions

Assistive devices to assist with mobilisation

Care-giver and patient education

Rehabilitation to assist with recovery from episodic disability

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

HIV infection can result in a myriad of CNS and PNS disorders, and it is important to differentiate whether these are caused by primary HIV infection, opportunistic infections or related to ART. Accurate diagnosis can improve management and understanding of prognosis.

Although the introduction of ART has resulted improved outcomes, neurological complications associated with HIV is still very common, especially in Africa. Early diagnosis and ART initiation, ART-adherence support, early detection of opportunistic infections and provision of adequate rehabilitation support is imperative to reduce the negative impact that these complications can have on the overall wellbeing of PLWH.

References[edit | edit source]

  1. What Are HIV and AIDS? Available from: (accessed 17 September, 2020).
  2. McGuire D/ University of California San Francisco. Neurologic Manifestations of HIV: HIV Insite Knowledge Base Chapter June 2003. Available from: (accessed 17 September, 2020).
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Modi G, Mochan A and Modi M. Neurological Manifestations of HIV. In: Okware SI (ed.) Advances in HIV and AIDS Control. Rijeka InTech 2018. Available from: (accessed 18 September, 2020)
  4. 4.00 4.01 4.02 4.03 4.04 4.05 4.06 4.07 4.08 4.09 4.10 4.11 Modi, G, Mochan A & Modi, M. Neurological Manifestations of HIV. In: Advances in HIV and AIDS Control. Volume (if applicable). Intechopen, 2018.
  5. 5.00 5.01 5.02 5.03 5.04 5.05 5.06 5.07 5.08 5.09 5.10 5.11 5.12 5.13 5.14 5.15 5.16 5.17 5.18 5.19 5.20 5.21 5.22 5.23 5.24 Howlett PW. Neurological Disorders in HIV in Africa: A Review. African Health Sciences. 2019; 19(suppl 2): A Review. African Health Sciences. 2019; 19(suppl2):1953-1977.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 Hogan C, Wilkins E. Neurological complications in HIV. Clinical Medicine. 2011 Dec;11(6):571.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Johns Hopkins Medicine. Neurological Complications of HIV. Available from: (accessed 20/10/2023)
  8. 8.0 8.1 Chan T, Marta M, Hawkins C, Rackstraw S. Cognitive and neurologic rehabilitation strategies for central nervous system HIV infection. Current HIV/AIDS Reports. 2020 Oct;17:514-21.
  9. Uwishema O, Ayoub G, Badri R, Onyeaka H, Berjaoui C, Karabulut E, Anis H, Sammour C, Mohammed Yagoub FE, Chalhoub E. Neurological disorders in HIV: hope despite challenges. Immunity, inflammation and disease. 2022 Mar;10(3):e591.
  10. Tan K, Roda R, Ostrow L, McArthur J, Nath A. PML-IRIS in patients with HIV infection: clinical manifestations and treatment with steroids. Neurology. 2009 Apr 28;72(17):1458-64.
  11. Britz E, Perovic O, Von Mollendorf C, Von Gottberg A, Iyaloo S, Quan V, Chetty V, Sriruttan C, Ismail NA, Nanoo A, Musekiwa A. The epidemiology of meningitis among adults in a South African province with a high HIV prevalence, 2009-2012. PloS one. 2016 Sep