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Hypothesis on the pathogenesis of vacuolar myelopathy, dementia, and peripheral neuropathy in AIDS
  1. S V Tan,
  2. R J Guiloff
  1. Neuromuscular Unit, West London Centre and University Department of Clinical Neurosciences, Charing Cross Hospital, London, UK
  1. Dr RJ Guiloff, Neuromuscular Unit (1st Floor Pilot Wing), Charing Cross Hospital, Fulham Palace Road, London W6 8RF, UK. Telephone 0044 181 746 8319; fax 0044 181 746 8420; email r.guiloff{at}


Certain aspects of the clinical syndrome of dementia, cerebral atrophy, predominantly sensory neuropathy, and vacuolar myelopathy in AIDS resemble those seen in vitamin B12 deficiency. Pathologically, there are similarities not only in the changes in the spinal cord, but also in the brain and peripheral nerves. The pathogenesis of vacuolar myelopathy may be secondary to a combination of immune mediated myelin and oligodendrocyte injury, and simultaneous impairment of repair mechanisms due to a deficiency of S-adenosylmethionine (SAM). Products derived from macrophages may interfere directly with the methyl transfer cycle through the generation of reactive oxygen intermediates and reactions involving nitric oxide and peroxynitrite which may limit the supply of methionine for conversion to SAM, both by direct interaction as well as through inhibition of methionine synthase. Macrophage activation with secretion of cytokines and other biologically reactive substances within the nervous system is sustained in the late stages of HIV infection by the general effects of immune depletion, including loss of T cells (with concomitant reduction of macrophage regulatory molecules) and recurrent opportunistic infections, and may be further augmented by the local presence of the virus itself (or its surface glycoprotein gp120). This would account for the common, but not exclusive, occurrence of vacuolar myelopathy in AIDS. The ability of the virus and its products to stimulate macrophage and microglial activation may also explain the association between severity ofvacuolar myelopathy and the presence of HIV encephalitis. A similar mechanism may underlie the pathogenesis of dementia, cerebral atrophy, and peripheral neuropathy. Local factors or differential susceptibility between the central and peripheral nervous system may determine whether myelinotoxic or neurotoxic processes predominate; the prominence of myelin involvement in the spinal cord, and axonal involvement peripherally may reflect both ends of this range, with the brain manifesting a more equal balance of both processes.

  • AIDS
  • myelopathy
  • peripheral neuropathy
  • dementia

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