Infiltration of infected leukocytes culminates in establishment of a brain niche for Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) during acute phase of infection, initiating an ongoing cascade of persistent viral replication and inflammation, that causes irreversible neuronal injury and HIV associated neurocognitive disease (HAND). In this study, humanized mice were treated with Smoothened Agonist (SAG), a Sonic Hedgehog (Shh) mimetic in order to fortify blood brain barrier (BBB) and dampen leukocyte extravasation into CNS during AHI. Results indicate that SAG treatment reduced viral burden in the CNS immediately after HIV transmission, but also conferred extended neuroprotection via increased BBB integrity (elevated levels of tight-junction protein, Claudin 5, and reduced S100B levels in periphery). These mice also showed healthier neurons with thick, uniform dendrites and reduced numbers of activated astrocytes. Additional in vitro experiments suggested SAG treatment was not associated with the establishment or reversal of latency in the target cells. Altogether, these findings validate neuroprotective role of Shh signaling and highlight the therapeutic potential of Shh mimetics against CNS complications associated with HIV infection. Further our results strongly demonstrate that pharmacological interventions to reduce leukocyte mobilization during early HIV infection, can provide prolonged neuroprotection, which might significantly delay the onset of HAND.
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