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Low levels of HIV-1 RNA detected in the cerebrospinal fluid after up to 10 years of suppressive therapy are associated with local immune activation.

  • Author(s): Dahl, Viktor
  • Peterson, Julia
  • Fuchs, Dietmar
  • Gisslen, Magnus
  • Palmer, Sarah
  • Price, Richard W
  • et al.

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Objective and design

Though combination antiretroviral therapy reduces the concentration of HIV-1 RNA in both plasma and cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) below the detection limit of clinical assays, low levels of HIV-1 RNA are frequently detectable in plasma using more sensitive assays. We examined the frequency and magnitude of persistent low-level HIV-1 RNA in CSF and its relation to the central nervous system (CNS) immune activation.


CSF and plasma HIV-1 RNA were measured using the single-copy assay with a detection limit of 0.3 copies/ml in 70 CSF and 68 plasma samples from 45 treated HIV-1-infected patients with less than 40 copies/ml of HIV-1 RNA in both fluids by standard clinical assays. We also measured CSF neopterin to assess intrathecal immune activation. Theoretical drug exposure was estimated using the CNS penetration-efficacy score of treatment regimens.


CSF HIV-1 RNA was detected in 12 of the 70 CSF samples (17%) taken after up to 10 years of suppressive therapy, compared to 39 of the 68 plasma samples (57%) with a median concentration of less than 0.3 copies/ml in CSF compared to 0.3 copies/ml in plasma (P < 0.0001). CSF samples with detectable HIV-1 RNA had higher CSF neopterin levels (mean 8.2 compared to 5.7 nmol/l; P = 0.0085). Patients with detectable HIV-1 RNA in CSF did not differ in pretreatment plasma HIV-1 RNA levels, nadir CD4 cell count or CNS penetration-efficacy score.


Low-level CSF HIV-1 RNA and its association with elevated CSF neopterin highlight the potential for the CNS to serve as a viral reservoir and for persistent infection to cause subclinical CNS injury.

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