Neuronal dysfunction and cell death in patients with human immunodeficiency virus type-I (HIV-1) infection may be mediated by HIV-1 proteins and products released from infected cells. Two HIV-1 proteins, the envelope glycoprotein gp120 and nonstructural protein Tat, are neurotoxic. We have determined the neuroexcitatory properties of HIV-1 tat protein using patch-clamp recording techniques. When fmoles of Tat were applied extracellularly, it elicited dose-dependent depolarizations of human fetal neurons in culture and rat CA1 neurons in slices, both in the absence and presence of tetrodotoxin. These responses were voltage-dependent, reversed at ~0 mV, and were significantly increased by repetitive applications with no evidence of desensitization. That these responses to Tat were due to direct actions on neurons was supported by observations that Tat dose-dependently depolarized outside-out patches excised from cultured human neurons. Removal of extracellular Ca2+ decreased the responses both in neurons and membrane patches. This is the first demonstration that an HIV-1 protein can, in the absence of accessory cells, directly excite neurons and leads us to speculate that Tat may be a causative agent in HIV-1 neurotoxicity.
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