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Damage to nervous system - AIDS

Half of the people with AIDS will develop signs of brain impairment or nerve damage during their illness. In one person out of ten it is the first symptom. HIV itself seems to attack, damage and destroy brain cells of the majority of people with AIDS who survive long enough. The virus is probably carried into the brain by special white cells called macrophages, which then produce more virus there. Brain cells have a texture on their surfaces similar to CD4 white cells which enables the virus to latch on and enter.

The damage happens gradually and often is not noticed until a significant part of the brain has been destroyed: a brain scan shows a shrunken appearance with enlarged cavities. The signs can be threefold: difficulties in thinking, difficulties in co-ordinating balance and moving, and changes in behaviour. Sometimes the problems are caused by other infections spreading throughout the body, or by tumours, all brought on by AIDS.

Brain damage affects children as well. In one study, sixteen out of twenty-one children with AIDS developed progressive brain destruction (encephalopathy). But any part of the nervous system can be damaged in adults or children, not just the brain, and AIDS can mimic just about any other disease of nerves.