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Researchers Receive $11.6 Million to Study Cannabis & HIV

New research shows that while we've learned a lot about the effects of cannabinoid exposure on brain cells, we still have much to discover about the impact of HIV infection on these cells.

Weill Cornell Medicine has received a significant $11.6 million grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), a branch of the National Institutes of Health. The funding will go towards a five-year study examining the potential link between cannabis use and the brains of individuals with HIV.

Weill Cornell Medicine's Professor of Immunology in Medicine, Lishomwa Ndhlovu, M.D., Ph.D., is heading the five-year study. The grant money will support his research efforts to gain a deeper understanding of how cannabis affects the brains of individuals with HIV.

Two distinguished professors, Michael Corley and Dionna Whitney Williams, are spearheading groundbreaking cannabis research. The former is an assistant professor of immunology in medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine, while the latter is an assistant professor of molecular and comparative pathobiology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

Ndhlovu stated, "Cannabinoids may cause changes within the brain, but it remains unclear yet how the use of cannabis might interact with HIV infection. This support from NIDA will allow us to collect the data we need to explore this relationship."

NIDA's SCORCH program is launching a new project that aims to explore the correlation between addiction-inducing substances and HIV's impact on individual brain cells.

According to Ndhlovu, this study holds vital significance as it sheds light on the impact of cannabis on the brains of individuals living with HIV. This knowledge can enable researchers to develop more effective treatments that can improve the overall health of the brain.

He went on to say, "We continue to investigate many assumptions on whether cannabis may exacerbate HIV’s effects on the brain, or whether it may protect against them."

According to him, while individuals with the virus can now expect to live longer lives, HIV still has the potential to inflict harm, particularly in the brain. Up to half of those living with HIV may suffer from cognitive function declines, particularly in areas such as working memory and attention.

Recent research shows that many HIV-positive individuals turn to cannabis for either recreational purposes or to alleviate their symptoms. However, due to its addictive nature, there is a chance that those with HIV may develop marijuana use disorder.

Researchers assert that cannabis could provide benefits for people with HIV due to its anti-inflammatory properties. This could potentially help reduce the harmful chronic inflammation caused by the virus.

Williams stated that "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."

A new study will investigate how cannabis affects individuals with HIV. Specifically, the researchers will explore how the drug interacts with multiple brain regions, including the hippocampus, which plays a crucial role in learning and memory. Using brain tissue samples from both human patients and animal models, the scientists will analyze gene activity and cellular mechanisms. The study aims to shed light on this complex issue and advance our understanding of the effects of cannabis on the brain.

According to Ndhlovu, the insights gained from this project could have major implications for preventing and treating two important health issues: HIV-related cognitive deficits and marijuana use disorder.

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