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HIV and Recent Illicit Drug Use Interact to Affect Verbal Memory in Women

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HIV infection and illicit drug use are each associated with diminished cognitive performance. This study examined the separate and interactive effects of HIV and recent illicit drug use on verbal memory, processing speed, and executive function in the multicenter Women's Interagency HIV Study.


Participants included 952 HIV-infected and 443 HIV-uninfected women (mean age = 42.8, 64% African-American). Outcome measures included the Hopkins Verbal Learning Test-Revised and the Stroop test. Three drug use groups were compared: recent illicit drug users (cocaine or heroin use in past 6 months, n = 140), former users (lifetime cocaine or heroin use but not in past 6 months, n = 651), and nonusers (no lifetime use of cocaine or heroin, n = 604).


The typical pattern of recent drug use was daily or weekly smoking of crack cocaine. HIV infection and recent illicit drug use were each associated with worse verbal learning and memory (P < 0.05). Importantly, there was an interaction between HIV serostatus and recent illicit drug use such that recent illicit drug use (compared with nonuse) negatively impacted verbal learning and memory only in HIV-infected women (P < 0.01). There was no interaction between HIV serostatus and illicit drug use on processing speed or executive function on the Stroop test.


The interaction between HIV serostatus and recent illicit drug use on verbal learning and memory suggests a potential synergistic neurotoxicity that may affect the neural circuitry underlying performance on these tasks.

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