FRIDAY, April 16, 2010 (HealthDay News) -- The painkiller morphine may help protect against HIV-associated dementia, says a new study.
Georgetown University Medical Center researchers found that morphine protected rat neurons from HIV toxicity, a discovery that could lead to the development of new drugs to treat people with HIV-related dementia, which causes depression, anxiety and physical and mental problems.
"We believe that morphine may be neuroprotective in a subset of people infected with HIV," lead investigator Italo Mocchetti, a professor of neuroscience, said in a Georgetown news release.
He and his colleagues conducted the study because they knew that some people with HIV who are heroin users never develop HIV brain dementia. Morphine is similar to heroin.
In their tests on rats, the researchers found that morphine triggers brain cells called astrocytes to produce a protein called CCL5, which activates factors that suppress HIV infection in immune cells.
CCL5 "is known to be important in blood, but we didn't know it is secreted in the brain," Mocchetti said. "Our hypothesis is that it is in the brain to prevent neurons from dying."
The study was to be presented at the annual meeting of the Society of NeuroImmune Pharmacology, April 13 to 17 in Manhattan Beach, Calif.
"Ideally, we can use this information to develop a morphine-like compound that does not have the typical dependency and tolerance issues that morphine has," Mocchetti said.
The Family Caregiver Alliance has more about HIV-associated dementia.