The same research team that offered an explanation in the late 1990s for how HIV damages nerve cells and causes dementia has made a second important discovery—that the virus also stops stem cells from repairing the brain. The team’s findings, reports, may pave the way for the development of medications that block this process, potentially reducing neurological damage.

Researchers at the Burnham Institute for Medical Research in La Jolla, California, have been focusing on interactions between HIV and p38 mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK), an enzyme in the body that disrupts the proliferation of cells. The Burnham group previously found that the gp120 protein on HIV can trigger p38 MAPK, which contributes to the death of mature nerve cells in the brain. The scientists, under the direction of Stuart Lipton, MD, PhD, now report that pg120-stimulated p38 MAPK also decreases stem cell activity in the brain.  

While neutralizing p38 MAPK won’t help bring back mature nerve cells, the authors suggest, it may help stem cells replenish those that have been lost. Finding a way to do this, they say, may also benefit other neurological problems, including Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s disease.