Neuropathic pain correlates with worsening cognition in people with human immunodeficiency virus

Ronald J. Ellis, Ned Sacktor, David B. Clifford, Christina M. Marra, Ann C. Collier, Benjamin Gelman, Jessica Robinson-Papp, Scott L. Letendre, Robert K. Heaton

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


Neuropathic pain and cognitive impairment are among the HIV-related conditions that have most stubbornly resisted amelioration by virally suppressive antiretroviral therapy. Overlaps between the regional brain substrates and mechanisms of neuropathic pain and cognitive disorders are increasingly recognized, yet no studies have examined the longitudinal relationship between these two disorders. Participants in the prospective, observational CNS HIV AntiRetroviral Therapy Effects Research (CHARTER) cohort underwent standardized clinical evaluations for clinical examination findings of distal sensory polyneuropathy, reporting distal neuropathic pain and neurocognitive performance at study entry (baseline) and an average of 12 years later. Change in neuropathic pain and neuropathy status from baseline to follow-up was by self-report and repeat examination, and change in neurocognitive performance was assessed using a previously published summary regression-based change score. Relationships between incident or worsened neuropathic pain and neurocognitive change were evaluated using uni- and multivariable regressions, including age at baseline and other relevant covariates. Participants were 385 people with HIV, 91 (23.6%) females, mean ± standard deviation (SD) age at baseline 43.5 (7.81) years, ethnicity 44.9% African American, 10.6% Hispanic, 42.6% non-Hispanic white and 1.82% other. Baseline median (interquartile range) nadir CD4 was 175 (34 309) cells/μl and current CD4 was 454 (279 639). Incident or worsened distal neuropathic pain occurred in 98 (25.5%) over the follow-up period. People with HIV with incident or worsened distal neuropathic pain had significantly worsened neurocognitive performance at follow-up compared to those without incident or worsened distal neuropathic pain (summary regression-based change score mean ± SD -0.408 ± 0.700 versus -0.228 ± 0.613; P = 0.0158). This effect remained significant when considering viral suppression on antiretroviral therapy, incident diabetes and other covariates as predictors. Overall neurocognitive change related to neuropathic pain was driven primarily by changes in the domains of executive function and speed of information processing. Those with incident distal neuropathy signs did not have neurocognitive worsening, nor did individuals who used opioid analgesics or other pain-modulating drugs such as amitriptyline. Worsened neurocognitive performance in people with HIV was associated with worsened neuropathic pain but not with changes in physical signs of neuropathy, and this was not attributable to therapies for pain or depression or to differences in viral suppression. This finding implies that incident or worsened pain may signal increased risk for neurocognitive impairment, and deserves more investigation, particularly if better pain management might stabilize or improve neurocognitive performance.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2206-2213
Number of pages8
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jun 1 2022


  • HIV
  • biomarkers
  • cerebrospinal fluid
  • cognition
  • neurodegeneration


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