A meta-analytic review of the effect of antiretroviral therapy on neurocognitive outcomes in adults living with HIV-1 in low-and middle-income countries


HIV-associated neurocognitive impairment remains a challenge even in the era of antiretroviral therapy (ART). Over 90% of people living with HIV are in low- and middle-income countries. Hence, it is not surprising that such countries bear a considerable burden of comorbidities like HIV-associated neurocognitive impairment despite an overall increase in life expectancy. The literature suggests differences in patient characteristics, clinical profile, prevalent HIV subtypes, treatment choices, pharmacogenetics, and socioeconomic factors between low- and middle-income countries compared with high-income countries. Therefore, we aimed to evaluate the effect of ART on neurocognitive outcomes in low- and middle-income countries. A comprehensive search of five databases (PubMed, CINAHL, CENTRAL, PsychInfo, Google scholar) for studies published between 1996 to 2020 was performed to identify studies that reported neurocognitive outcomes in ART-treated and ART naïve HIV positive individuals. Two independent reviewers conducted study screening, data extraction, and evaluation of the risk of bias. Pooled effect size estimates (Hedges’ g) and 95% CI were computed using random-effects models. Sensitivity analysis, subgroup analysis, meta-regression, and evaluation of publication bias were also conducted. Forty studies (24 cross-sectional, 13 longitudinal studies, and two randomized controlled trials) contributed to a series of meta-analyses. We found significant small to moderate effects of antiretroviral therapy for global cognition (Hedges’ g observed = 0.30; 95% CI: 0.15, 0.44; k = 25; p = 0.0003; I2 = 92.1%; tau = 0.32; Q = 305.1), executive function (Hedges’ g = 0.24, 95%CI: 0.02,0.46; p-0.04; k = 8; I2 = 37.5%; tau = 0.23; Q = 11.2), and speed of information processing (Hedges’ g = 0.25, 95% CI: 0.05, 0.45; k = 9; p = 0.02; I2 = 86.4%; tau = 0.21; Q = 58.9). We found no significant ART effect on attention-working memory, learning and memory, motor function, and verbal fluency. No significant effect was seen with the duration of therapy, efavirenz use, and Central Penetrating Effectiveness (CPE) of antiretroviral therapy. Subgroup analyses identified study design (between-group and within-group; cross-sectional and longitudinal) and normative scores as significant sources of heterogeneity. Meta-regression analysis indicated that nadir CD4 modified the magnitude of ART’s effect on cognitive outcomes. Age, gender, and country income-group were not significant moderators. Our findings provide systematic evidence that antiretroviral therapy improves neurocognitive outcomes in the domains of global cognition, executive function and speed of information processing, of people living with HIV in low- and middle-income countries, especially those with advanced immunosuppression. However, these findings are not definitive as they are limited by the probability of publication bias, high heterogeneity, and exclusion of significant confounders.


Michael HU, Youbi E, Ohadoma SC, Ramlall S, Oosthuizen F, Polyakova M




  • Epidemiology and Determinants of Health
    • Epidemiology
    • Determinants of Health
  • Determinants of Health
    • Income
  • Population(s)
    • General HIV+ population
  • Prevention, Engagement and Care Cascade
    • Engagement and Care Cascade
  • Engagement and Care Cascade
    • Treatment
  • Mental Health
    • Neurocognitive disorders


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