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Scientists found a way of using MRI scans to assess HIV situation in the brain

Posted March 15, 2017

MRI scanning is not exactly a new technology. It has been around for more than 50 years, but scientists are always improving it. Originally it was meant to detect cancer tissue, but now scientists from UCL have found a way of using it to help spot HIV in the brain. This will help assessing, how effective drug treatment is.

MRI scanning was originally conceived to detect cancer tissue, but now it is used for a variety of diagnostic procedures, including HIV detection in the brain. Image credit: Jan Ainali via Wikimedia, CC-BY-3.0

Although there still is no cure for HIV, it can be kept under control with some medication. However, doctors cannot accurately assess how effective drugs are. This new research showed that HIV may be present in the brain even when disease is kept under control. More importantly, this study revealed potential of the MRI technology in HIV diagnosis. This is very important, because almost half of HIV patients report cognitive problems. Situation was much worse some time ago, before effective HIV treatment was available. It usually led to AIDS, which, among other problems, caused dementia. Therefore, assessing HIV situation in the brain is very important.

Around 15 % of HIV patients will see the disease affecting their brain. Currently doctors have to perform a lumbar puncture to confirm this, which is not pleasant at all – it involves inserting a needle into the back and taking samples spinal fluid. It is very unpleasant for the patients and time consuming. MRI tests would be a nice upgrade for this procedure. Scientists analysed data from 146 HIV patients who were investigated for cognitive problems between 2011 and 2015. They found that HIV effects on the brain can be noticed through changed in white matter, which can be analysed using MRI.

Diffuse white matter signal abnormalities can be triggered by inflammation in the brain caused by HIV infection and are linked to dementia development. Detecting these signs may help doctors optimise the treatment. Professor Ravi Gupta, senior author of the study, said: “Where HIV has spread to the brain, we can change the treatment regime to add drugs that cross the blood-brain barrier more effectively to control the infection”. And, of course, MRI check-ups are much less uncomfortable than lumbar punctures. They can be done quicker and does not leave patient sore. Furthermore, since there is no big needles involved, patients would be much more eager to get these tests done.

We are living in time of breakthroughs. There are news about scientific advancements all the time and even such diseases as HIV infection can be treated quite effectively. But before it can be cured, scientists have to work on improving current diagnostic techniques.


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