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CDC HIV/AIDS/Viral Hepatitis/STD/TB Prevention News Update
HIV Study

October 31, 2001
City News Service (Los Angeles) (10.22.01) - Wednesday,

It's no secret that stress is bad for your health, but the consequences could be especially severe for those infected with HIV, according to a UCLA study. Stress "enables HIV to spread more quickly in infected persons and prevents antiretroviral drugs from restoring immune system function," according to a UCLA statement. The study -"Impaired Response to HAART in HIV- Infected Individuals with High Autonomic Nervous System Activity," Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (October 23, 2001;98(22):12695-12700) -is the first to pinpoint the molecular mechanisms linking stress and HIV infection.

The UCLA team studied 13 HIV-positive men between ages 25 and 54 who had never taken combination antiretroviral drugs. In addition to the men's baseline AIDS viral load, the scientists measured stress indicators such as blood pressure and heart and pulse rates while the men were at rest, and again after they had been subjected to unexpected noises, mental arithmetic and exercises under pressure. All 13 men were put on a powerful antiretroviral drug regimen to combat their HIV infection. Over the next 11 months, researchers again measured each man's viral load and CD-4 cell count -indicators of how much the HIV had spread and how well their immune systems were fighting the infection. The UCLA team compared these figures to the men's stress level ranking before they took the drugs. "Our findings propose that high levels of stress, day in and day out, may eventually wear down the immune system. It's like a wave hitting a rock on the beach. One wave won't do much damage, but years later, that rock gets ground down into the sand," said Dr. Steve Cole, UCLA assistant professor of hematology-oncology and the lead author of the report.

"Our findings suggest that the nervous system has a direct effect on viral replications," Cole said. "This implies we may be able to alter that effect by reducing stress levels. Even anti-HIV drugs prove more effective in people with low [autonomic nervous system] activity."