Why do so many people with HIV also suffer from dementia? Student and researcher Stephani Velasquez aims to answer this and other questions.
With AIDS, Why Dementia?
Velasquez, a third-year PhD candidate at Rutgers Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, was one of four researchers to receive a 2013 Mount Sinai Institute for NeuroAIDS Disparities Scholar Grant. The award supports her study and work at the Public Health Research Institute, a biomedical research center at New Jersey Medical School, where she is examining how HIV infiltrates the central nervous system and facilitates the development of neuroAIDS symptoms. The term neuroAIDS refers to a variety of neurologic disorders, including dementia, that occur as a result of HIV infection. These syndromes affect approximately 30 to 40 percent of people with AIDS.
Exploring HIV’s Effects on Cognition
Velasquez is conducting several HIV and neuroAIDS studies in the lab of Eliseo Eugenin, an associate professor of basic science at the Public Health Research Institute,.
Generally, the blood–brain barrier acts very effectively to protect the brain from many common infections. “However, with HIV infection, the virus quickly crosses this barrier and infects specific cells of the brain,” Velasquez explains. “The resulting symptoms vary, ranging from mild cognitive impairment—for instance, consistently forgetting where you put your keys—to full-blown dementia.”
Her study examines the role of pannexin-1 hemichannels as a key factor in the progression of HIV-associated dementia. These channels, found on just about all cell membranes, connect cells to each other and to their extracellular environment, the circulatory system, allowing the passage of small molecules and other substances between cells and the blood. “We found that these channels are vitally important to the production of active HIV infection in the brain,” she says. “The presence of HIV causes the channels to open, enabling the virus to spread to the central nervous system. Blocking the channels greatly reduces the infection rate.” The study was published in the Journal of Leucocyte Biology.
Getting Hooked on Research
Velasquez discovered research as an undergraduate at Kean University, where she participated in the McNair Scholars Program, a national effort designed to prepare first-generation college students and those from other underrepresented groups for graduate study in the sciences.
All McNair scholars attend a summer research institute. For her session, Velasquez was part of a team studying the pigment of baleen whales’ eyes in a study funded by the New England Aquarium. “We wanted to find out why so many of these whales get tangled in fishermen’s nets,” she says. Their findings—that whales are severely visually impaired, seeing only shadows, not colors or black and white—were published in the March 2012 Journal of Visual Neuroscience. “This work was amazing and sparked my interest in research as a career,” she says.
She chose the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences because it offers the opportunity to explore many different areas. “The faculty is outstanding—always accessible and willing to talk about their work,” she says. “It’s a great environment to learn how to be a scientist.”