Defense Date


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Pharmacology & Toxicology

First Advisor

Hamid I. Akbarali


More than 1.2 million people are estimated to be currently living with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) in the United States of America. The gastrointestinal (GI) tract is both a major target and an important component of HIV pathogenesis. The GI processes that are dysregulated during HIV infection are controlled by the enteric nervous system (ENS). Indeed, both clinical and experimental studies have implicated the ENS in HIV and simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV) pathogenesis. In addition to direct viral effects, the HIV virus also indirectly affects the GI tract via cellular and/or viral toxins released by infected cells. Trans-activator of transcription (Tat) is a viral toxin that plays an important role in replication of the HIV virus. While, the HIV virus does not directly infect neurons, Tat has been shown to modulate neuronal function. HIV infection in the gut is accompanied by: translocation of bacteria and bacterial products from the gut lumen to peripheral blood, immune activation and inflammation. Lipopolysaccharide (LPS) is a major bacterial product that is used to determine the rate of bacterial translocation and to drive inflammation. Despite reports of enteric ganglionitis in SIV infected monkeys and autonomic denervation in the jejunum of HIV patients, little is known of the mechanism underlying enteric neuropathogenesis in HIV and the role of the ENS in HIV pathogenesis. In the present study, we assessed the effects of Tat on enteric neuronal excitability and how Tat and LPS interact in the ENS to bring about inflammation and GI motility problems observed in HIV patients. We show that Tat significantly increased enteric neuronal excitability by modulating sodium channels expressed on enteric neurons. Tat sensitized ENS cells to LPS-mediated increase in pro-inflammatory cytokines via a TLR4-mediated pathway involving MyD88. Mice expressing the tat transgene (Tat+) had faster GI transit rates and significantly higher frequencies of diameter changes in the proximal ileum than controls (Tat-). Tat+ mice were also more sensitive to LPS-mediated decreases in colonic transit rate. This study highlights the role of viral and bacterial proteins in HIV pathogenesis in the gastrointestinal tract and also demonstrates a critical role of the ENS in HIV pathogenesis.


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