There is compelling evidence to support the idea that autophagy has a protective function in neurons and its disruption results in neurodegenerative disorders. Neuronal damage is well-documented in the brains of HIV-infected individuals, and evidence of inflammation, oxidative stress, damage to synaptic and dendritic structures, and neuronal loss are present in the brains of those with HIV-associated dementia. We investigated the role of autophagy in microglia-induced neurotoxicity in primary rodent neurons, primate and human models. We demonstrate here that products of simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV)-infected microglia inhibit neuronal autophagy, resulting in decreased neuronal survival. Quantitative analysis of autophagy vacuole numbers in rat primary neurons revealed a striking loss from the processes. Assessment of multiple biochemical markers of autophagic activity confirmed the inhibition of autophagy in neurons. Importantly, autophagy could be induced in neurons through rapamycin treatment, and such treatment conferred significant protection to neurons. Two major mediators of HIV-induced neurotoxicity, tumor necrosis factor-α and glutamate, had similar effects on reducing autophagy in neurons. The mRNA level of p62 was increased in the brain in SIV encephalitis and as well as in brains from individuals with HIV dementia, and abnormal neuronal p62 dot structures immunoreactivity was present and had a similar pattern with abnormal ubiquitinylated proteins. Taken together, these results identify that induction of deficits in autophagy is a significant mechanism for neurodegenerative processes that arise from glial, as opposed to neuronal, sources, and that the maintenance of autophagy may have a pivotal role in neuroprotection in the setting of HIV infection.
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