Those with HIV can develop HIV-associated neurocognitive disorder or “HAND” when HIV-infected immune cells release viral material into the nervous system. These molecules can trigger inflammation, and over time, damage healthy neurons, causing symptoms like depression, memory loss, and difficulties with concentration.
The HIV virus attacks the body’s immune cells, making it difficult for the immune system to fend off infections.
With early diagnosis and treatment, the amount of HIV virus in the blood can be suppressed to undetectable levels, allowing people to live long and healthy lives.
“Those treated early [have] the most promising prognosis and the longest lifespan,” the study authors said.
But even with treatment, of the 37.9 million individuals worldwide infected with HIV-1, the authors explained that approximately 20-50% will exhibit HAND symptoms at some point in their lives.
CBD Can Prevent HIV-Infected Cell From Releasing Damaging Material
HIV-infected immune cells can continue to produce viral proteins that can trigger inflammation even with effective HIV treatment.
As viral proteins build up inside the infected cell, they become released through microscopic lipid bubbles called “extracellular vesicles.”
These extracellular vesicles can accumulate in the nervous system, and in some cases, cross the protective blood-brain barrier which normally prevents damaging contents in the blood from entering the brain. When the viral proteins are eventually released, they trigger inflammation leading to HAND symptoms.
A 2015 study found that consistent cannabis use was associated with lower viral loads in a small group of people with HIV.
“Furthermore, recent studies showed that cannabis exposure is associated with decreased odds of neurocognitive impairment in people with HIV,” the study authors added.
But despite the link, it wasn’t clear how exactly CBD helped.
To investigate, the research team looked at how HIV-infected monocytes – a type of white blood cell – behaved in the laboratory when they were exposed to CBD. When CBD was added, the researchers saw a 79% decrease in the number of extracellular vesicles released.
A closer look further revealed that many viral proteins such as Nef, which triggers inflammation, were decreased by up to 79%. Another protein, Gp120, which can damage and kill neurons, was reduced by up to 58%.
To test whether this also happened inside the body, the team collected blood samples from HIV-positive donors. Analysis of the extracellular vesicles in their blood revealed that cannabis-using donors had less viral proteins like Nef than those who didn’t use cannabis.
CBD Can Prevent HIV-Infected Cells From Making Viral Proteins
Using the same setup, the researchers found that HIV-infected immune cells when treated with CBD not only released fewer viral proteins, they also made fewer viral proteins. For instance, CBD-treated HIV-infected cells produced 62% less Nef.
Furthermore, the team also found that CBD helped encourage the HIV-infected cells to produce components needed to help degrade these unwanted viral proteins.
“These findings suggest cannabinoids may be beneficial in the treatment of virus-associated inflammation,” study authors said.
Most antiretroviral therapy used to treat HIV prevents the virus from entering healthy cells and building new viruses but doesn’t block already infected cells from making viral proteins the way CBD does. This means CBD could work well in combination with existing treatment options.
Because CBD also directly reduces the release of extracellular vesicles, the researchers added that it could potentially help treat any disease – not just HIV – that uses extracellular vesicles to trigger inflammation.
“Broadening the application of these findings not only to other infectious diseases but also to many diseases with an inflammatory component.”
Calvin Chan is a researcher and medical writer from Edmonton, Canada. As a big science nerd, he loves reading and writing about everything science - from cannabis to dark matter and even alien life. Calvin has a PhD from the University of Alberta.