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$11.6m NIDA study to explore effects of cannabis in HIV

The study will investigate the potential risks and benefits of cannabis on the brains of those living with HIV.



Dr Lishomwa Ndhlovu and Dr Michael Corley will lead the research with Dr Dionna Whitney Williams (not pictured). Photo: Weill Cornell Medicine

Researchers in the US have been awarded a $11.6 million grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) to study the effects of cannabis in those living with HIV.

The five-year grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) of the National Institutes of Health will allow researchers at Weill Cornell Medicine to explore the effects cannabis may have on the brains of those living with HIV.

The project is the newest component of NIDA’s SCORCH program, which seeks to investigate how substances may modify the effects of HIV in the brain, at the level of individual cells. 

Advancements in treatment mean that HIV is now a chronic condition, with patients living far longer with the virus. However, it may still cause damage and up to half of those living with HIV may experience declines in cognitive function, particularly in working memory and attention.  

Studies have found that people living with HIV frequently use cannabis, recreationally or to treat symptoms related to HIV and they may be at risk for cannabis use disorder. 

But cannabis may also offer benefits for those living with HIV. Researchers think its anti-inflammatory effect could reduce the chronic inflammation caused by the virus, which is thought to contribute to the long-term health problems, including cognitive deficits, that people living with HIV may experience.

Cannabis may exacerbate the effects of HIV on the brain, or it may protect against them, researchers don’t know yet, said principal investigator Dr Lishomwa Ndhlovu, a professor of immunology in medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Weill Cornell Medicine.

“We know that the virus may cause changes within the brain, but it’s not clear yet how the use of cannabis might interact with the infection,” he commented in a press release.

“This support from NIDA will allow us to collect the data we need to explore this relationship.”

Dr Ndhlovu is joined by Dr Michael Corley, an assistant professor of immunology in medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases and Dr Dionna Whitney Williams, an assistant professor of molecular and comparative pathobiology at Johns Hopkins University School Medicine, in leading the research.

“Findings from our lab and others demonstrate that inflammation can influence cognition in people living with HIV and we’re aiming to understand whether cannabis can mitigate those effects and how it does this on a molecular level,” said Dr Williams.

To examine the interaction between cannabis and HIV, the research team will focus on several brain regions, including the hippocampus, where new neurons form, in a process critical to learning and memory. 

Using brain tissue samples collected from human patients after death and from non-human animal models, they intend to look at gene activity and the mechanisms controlling it within individual cells.

Dr Corley added: “It’s unclear how different types of brain cells react to cannabis in the context of HIV.

“New single-cell technologies will allow us to map these changes at a resolution high enough to examine the effects on specific cell types.”

The information this project generates could, over the long-term, aid efforts to better prevent and treat HIV-related cognitive deficits and cannabis use disorder, according to the researchers. 


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Sarah Sinclair is a respected cannabis journalist writing on subjects related to science, medicine, research, health and wellness. She is managing editor of Cannabis Health, the UK’s leading title covering medical cannabis and CBD, and sister titles, Cannabis Wealth and Psychedelic Health. Sarah has an NCTJ journalism qualification and an MA in Journalism from the University of Sunderland. Sarah has over six years experience working on newspapers, magazines and digital-first titles, the last two of which have been in the cannabis sector. She has also completed training through the Medical Cannabis Clinicians Society securing a certificate in Medical Cannabis Explained. She is a member of PLEA’s (Patient-Led Engagement for Access) advisory board, has hosted several webinars on cannabis and women's health and has moderated at industry events such as Cannabis Europa. Sarah Sinclair is the editor of Cannabis Health. Got a story? Email / Follow us on Twitter: @CannabisHNews / Instagram: @cannabishealthmag


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