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Unless treated with effective antiretroviral therapy many AIDS patients develop a characteristic vacuolar myelopathy of the spinal cord associated with moderate clinical disability. Opinion is divided as to whether vacuolar myelopathy is causally linked to HIV myelitis. To investigate this further, spinal cord pathology was assessed in 41 drug users, 33 homosexual men and 16 other patients, all with AIDS. Previous work has shown that HIV encephalitis is more common in Edinburgh drug users than in homosexual men. In the present study HIV myelitis (10% overall) was more common in drug users (17%) than in homosexual men (3%) (P = 0.05), whereas the incidence of opportunistic infections (7% v. 9%) and lymphomas (2% v. 6%) was comparable in the two groups, but with a slight trend in the reverse direction, reflecting similar findings in the brain. However, moderate or severe vacuolar myelopathy was equally represented in both groups (20% of drug users and 21% of homosexual men). The HIV proviral load, assessed by polymerase chain reaction in frozen samples of thoracic spinal cord in 37 cases, correlated closely with the presence of giant cells and/or with immunocytochemical evidence of productive HIV infection. In 13 cases, the proviral load was measured in cervical, thoracic and lumbar samples and proved to be uniformly high or low in individual cases. This study provides no evidence for direct involvement of HIV, cytomegalovirus, papovavirus or human foamy virus in the pathogenesis of vacuolar myelopathy.


Journal article


Neuropathol Appl Neurobiol

Publication Date





2 - 10


AIDS-Related Opportunistic Infections, Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome, Adult, CD4 Lymphocyte Count, Homosexuality, Male, Humans, Incidence, Male, Risk Factors, Spinal Cord Diseases, Substance Abuse, Intravenous, United Kingdom, Viral Load