Weill Cornell Medicine Conducting NIH-Funded Study on Cannabis’ Effect on Brains of People with HIV

Weill Cornell Medicine researchers have received a five-year, $11.6 million grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse to investigate the effects of cannabis on the brains of people who are living with HIV.

Full story after the jump.

Weill Cornell Medicine has been awarded a five-year, $11.6 million grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study what effects cannabis — and compounds derived from it — may have on the brains of those living with HIV. 

Researchers are attempting to determine whether cannabis exacerbates HIV’s effects on the brain, or protects against them. 

In a press release, principal investigator Lishomwa Ndhlovu, a professor of immunology in medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Weill Cornell Medicine, said researchers “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.” 

Studies have found that people living with HIV frequently use cannabis, recreationally or to treat symptoms related to HIV. Cannabis has anti-inflammatory properties that researchers speculate could reduce the chronic, harmful inflammation caused by the virus. Researchers believe this inflammation contributes to the long-term health problems, including cognitive deficits, that people living with HIV may experience. 

To examine the interaction between cannabis and HIV, the researchers 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 nonhuman animal models, they intend to look at gene activity and the mechanisms controlling it within individual cells. 

In a statement, Michael Corley, assistant professor of immunology in medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases, said “It’s unclear how different types of brain cells react to cannabis in the context of HIV” and that new single-cell technologies will allow researchers to map the changes at a resolution high enough to examine the effects on specific cell types. 

The project is a component of NIDA’s SCORCH program, which seeks to investigate how substances that can lead to addiction may modify the effects of HIV in the brain, at the level of individual cells. This cannabis research is the second SCORCH project based at Weill Cornell Medicine. 


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