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Use of Nonantiretroviral Medications That May Impact Neurocognition: Patterns and Predictors in a Large, Long-Term HIV Cohort Study

Radtke, Kendra K. PharmD*; Bacchetti, Peter PhD; Anastos, Kathryn MD; Merenstein, Daniel MD§; Crystal, Howard MD; Karim, Roksana MD, PhD; Weber, Kathleen M. MD#; Edmonds, Andrew PhD**; Sheth, Anandi N. MD††; Fischl, Margaret A. MD‡‡; Vance, David PhD§§; Greenblatt, Ruth M. MD*; Rubin, Leah H. PhD, MPH‖‖

Author Information
JAIDS Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes: June 1, 2018 - Volume 78 - Issue 2 - p 202-208
doi: 10.1097/QAI.0000000000001658



Despite effective antiretroviral (ARV) therapy, people living with HIV continue to report memory and mental acuity problems and demonstrate impairment on standard measures of neuropsychological functioning.1,2 For example, in the Women's Interagency HIV Study (WIHS), HIV-infected (HIV+) women on effective ARVs show persistent vulnerabilities in global neuropsychological functioning and in verbal learning, memory, attention/working memory, and verbal fluency compared with HIV-uninfected (HIV−) women.3 Moreover, issues in motor function become apparent over time among HIV+ women on ARVs vs. HIV− women. Given the persistence of neurocognitive vulnerabilities, despite combined antiretroviral therapy (cART) and their relationship to function,4,5 identifying potential contributors to neurocognitive performance is an important clinical priority.

One factor that may influence some of the variability in neuropsychological test performance among HIV+ individuals is the effects of non-ARV medications with known neurocognitive adverse effects (NC-AE), including agents with anticholinergic properties, anxiolytics, antipsychotics, antiepileptics, and opiates.2,6–11 The possible contribution of non-ARV medications to neurocognitive performance in HIV+ individuals is particularly important to consider because cART recipients are living longer and using multiple non-ARV medications with age.12,13 On average, HIV+ individuals report using 7–14 non-ARV medications many of which are NC-AE medications.14–16 Importantly, concomitant medication use or “polypharmacy” is associated with lower performance on rapid screening tests for cognitive impairment in both HIV+17 and HIV− individuals.18

An important first step before investigating NC-AE medication associations with neuropsychological test performance is to (1) characterize the patterns and prevalence of NC-AE medication use; (2) determine sociodemographic, behavioral, and clinical predictors of NC-AE medication use; and (3) to determine whether NC-AE medication use predicts HIV-related treatment outcomes. We addressed these aims within the WIHS and hypothesized that HIV serostatus would predict NC-AE medication use and that NC-AE medication use would predict lower cART adherence and virologic suppression.



All data were prospectively collected at semiannual WIHS visits; methods were previously published.19–21 HIV+ and HIV− women were enrolled in the WIHS at any of 11 sites across the United States between 1994 and 2014 (enrollment dates vary by site and study wave). All participants provided written informed consent via human subject's protection protocols approved by each of the collaborating institutions. Analyzable participant data were limited to WIHS visits with non-ARV medication data available occurring in the era of optimized cART regimens. Specifically, we included 21 visits beginning April 2004 through September 2014 (data available at the time of analysis). Women with incident HIV infection after WIHS enrollment were excluded (n = 25).

Data Collection

Self-reported sociodemographic and medication use data were obtained via interviewer–administered survey instruments, and HIV-relevant laboratory measurements were recorded from specimen analysis at study visits.20 For medication use, participants were asked to recall ARV medications taking currently and since last study visit (typically 6 months), medications for specific conditions of interest, and any other medications used since last visit.

Defining NC-AE Medication Use

A literature search was conducted using UpToDate and PubMed to identify non-ARV NC-AE medications. The search included a combination of terms related to central nervous system impairment (eg, “cognit* AND impair*”), medication use (eg, “med*,” “drug”), and adverse effects (eg, “adverse”). Medication classes (eg, antidepressants) identified through this search were further explored through additional, more specific search terms. In order for a medication to make NC-AE classification, reports must have described the specific adverse effect (eg, memory loss) associated with a specific medication. Medications with central nervous system adverse effects but not those impairing cognition (eg, headache) were not accepted as NC-AE classification. Both primary and review articles were accepted as sources. The NC-AE for each identified medication was verified using a second resource, Lexicomp Online.

Using these methods, 102 non-ARV medications were identified as having NC-AE properties, and 83 of 102 were reported to be used by WIHS participants. Each NC-AE medication was assigned an individual code and 1 group code determined by the medication's drug class. Earlier studies report that hydroxymethylglutaryl coenzyme A (HMG-CoA) reductase inhibitors (statins) were associated with neurocognitive impairment; however, recent systematic assessments indicate that statins are not likely to cause neurocognitive impairment and could possibly prevent it.22–24 The association between statin use and neurocognitive impairment is most likely because of their major indication of the treatment of hyperlipidemias, a condition that increases the risk of vascular-based neurological injury25 We suspect that statins likely differ from other NC-AE medications that have more direct effects on cognition. Thus, we excluded statins from the list of NC-AE medications, leaving 79 NC-AE medications in 11 classification groups (see Table, Supplemental Digital Content 1, for list of NC-AE medications). Each potential NC-AE medication identified in the WIHS data set was further ascertained by a Doctor of Pharmacy candidate (K.K.R.) to ensure accurate NC-AE classifications. The WIHS database was searched by brand name, generic name, and indication and potential variations in spellings of NC-AE medication names. Individual participants were classified as an ever (vs. never) NC-AE medication user based on whether they reported using at least 1 NC-AE medication at any time. Visits were considered an NC-AE medication use visit if at least 1 NC-AE medication was reported.

Predictors of NC-AE Medication Use

Fixed factors were summarized by unique WIHS participant (N = 3300) and included HIV infection status, race/ethnicity, enrollment site, and educational attainment (high school/General Equivalency Diploma/diploma). Time-varying factors were summarized by unique WIHS visit and included age, annual household income (>$12,000), injection and noninjection recreational drug use (RDU), alcohol use (abstain, 1–7 drinks/week, 8–12 drinks/week, or >12 drinks/week), elevated depressive symptoms (Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale ≥16), homelessness (residence of street, shelter/welfare hotel, or rooming/boarding/halfway house), third-party health payer (any private/public health or dental insurance or medication cost assistance payer), clinical AIDS (any criterion excluding CD4 cell count), and undetectable plasma HIV RNA (values below assay threshold ranged from 50–80 copies/mL during the study period).

Statistical Analyses

Basic summary statistics (eg, mean, SD) were used to summarize participant characteristics. Generalized estimating equations for discrete outcomes were conducted to assess factors associated with any NC-AE medication use and to assess any NC-AE medication use as a predictor of HIV-related clinical outcomes including cART use, ≥95% cART adherence, and undetectable plasma HIV RNA (viral load). All models were fit using PROC GENMOD (exchangeable correlation structure) in SAS version 9.4 (SAS Institute, Cary, NC). Significance was set at P < 0.05.



A total of 3300 women and 42,281 visits met inclusion criteria (Table 1). Because of missing non-ARV medication data, 661 visits (487 HIV+; 74 HIV−) were excluded from analyses. Of the 3300 women, 2328 (71%) women were HIV+. Among HIV+ women, ≥95% adherence to cART was common (82% of visits), viral load was undetectable at 50% of visits, 41% had a history of clinical AIDS, and the lowest median CD4 count at any WIHS visit was 200 cells per cubic millimeter (interquartile range, 87–319 cells/mm3). Missing data for each variable comprised <10% of visits with the exception of income (11% HIV+; 13% HIV−).

Demographic Characteristics of WIHS Study Participants From 2004 to 2014

Patterns of NC-AE Medication Use

Overall, HIV+ women reported NC-AE medication use more often than HIV− women (42% of visits vs. 30%). When all visits were considered (NC-AE medication use and nonuse visits), HIV+ women reported greater use of anxiolytic, opioid, antihistamine, gastrointestinal (eg, loperamide), and antidepressant NC-AE medications vs. HIV− women (Ps < 0.001; Table 2).

HIV Status as a Predictor for NC-AE Medication Use by Medication Class

Predictors of NC-AE Medication Use

In unadjusted models, HIV+ women were more likely to use NC-AE medications compared with uninfected women (P < 0.0001; Table 3). A history of clinical AIDS was also a predictor of NC-AE medication use among HIV+ women (P < 0.0001). After adjusting for HIV serostatus, predictors of NC-AE medication use included having a third-party health payer, elevated depressive symptoms, and noninjection RDU (Ps < 0.01). Annual household income of >$12,000 and nonhazardous alcohol consumption (1–7 and 8–12 drinks/week) were associated with being less likely to report NC-AE medication use (Ps < 0.05).

Predictors of NC-AE Medication Use at WIHS Visit

NC-AE Medication Use and HIV-Related Treatment Outcomes

NC-AE medication use at a WIHS visit was a significant predictor of cART use and having an undetectable viral load at that visit (Ps < 0.001; Table 4). However, a significant association of NC-AE medication use with cART adherence was not found (P = 0.45).

NC-AE Medication Use as a Predictor for HIV Treatment Outcomes


To our knowledge, this is the first study to examine patterns and predictors of use of non-ARV medications with known neurocognitive effects, as well as the impact on HIV-related treatment outcomes. HIV+ women were more likely to report using any NC-AE medications compared with HIV− women, specifically antianxiety, opioid, gastrointestinal (primarily antidiarrheal agents), antihistamines, and antidepressant medications, all of which are commonly prescribed in HIV practices.26–28 Thus, the differential use of non-ARV NC-AE medications could explain some of the variability in neurocognitive performance in studies examining HIV-associated cognitive impairment.

HIV+ NC-AE medication users in the current study were more likely to use cART than non-NC-AE medication users. This finding is consistent with a previous WIHS study where non-ARV medication users, specifically antidepressant users, were more likely to use cART.29 These findings suggest that the use of 1 prescription medication likely predicts the use of other prescribed medications and that the use of NC-AE medications appears to occur in the context of ongoing medical care. WIHS is a long-term cohort study during which participants engage with staff who encourage linkages to care, particularly when severe symptoms or laboratory abnormalities are present; thus, the participants analyzed in this study may be more likely to enter care than those who do not participate in a study similar to the WIHS. Receipt of these treatments requires either financial ability to self-pay or health plan coverage for medication costs. The latter is in accordance with our findings that having a health plan predicted NC-AE medication use. However, higher annual incomes (>$12,000) were associated with no NC-AE medication use in our study. Although incomes above $12,000 per year might be expected to result in greater ability to pay for medications, higher incomes are likely the result of employment, which may be associated with lower mental illness and thus lower need for use of many of the medications with NC-AE classification.

Abstaining from alcohol use was associated with greater likelihood of NC-AE medication use in our study. This finding could be explained by the recommended avoidance of alcohol with many of the NC-AE medications (eg, zolpidem, opioids, benzodiazepines) and/or the result of alcohol consumption replacing the need for NC-AE medication use. Recent injection RDU was not common in the cohort, and thus our study had a wide confidence interval for its relation to use of NC-AE medications. However, noninjection RDU was associated with NC-AE medication use. This finding may be the result of the widely recognized association between mental illness and RDU. Inclusion of opioids in the NC-AE category may have also influenced this association as opioids can be both prescribed and abused for recreational purposes including symptom management through self-medication.30

Although the literature regarding the link between non-ARV medication use and neurocognitive impairment in HIV+ individuals is limited, medical conditions that warrant the use of NC-AE medications have been linked to HIV-associated cognitive impairment and poor health outcomes. For example, depression, RDU, and stress disorders are all associated with cognitive vulnerabilities in HIV+ individuals.31–36 Psychiatric disorders and serious mental illness are also associated with poor HIV outcomes.37–41 Additionally, high concomitant medication use may be risk factors for cognitive decline and increased mortality in HIV-uninfected adults.18,42–44 Although the directionality of these findings are unknown, it is important to consider concomitant medication use, especially in the case of HIV infection, where individuals automatically acquire a minimum of 3 medications upon diagnosis for HIV treatment alone.44–47 Future studies evaluating the relationship between non-ARV medication use and cognitive function in individuals living with HIV should also control for psychiatric comorbidities and sociodemographic factors (eg, RDU).

We predicted that NC-AE medication use would be associated with worse HIV-treatment outcomes (eg, high viral load) secondary to potential medication effects on cognition. In contrast, NC-AE medication use was associated with beneficial HIV outcomes. These results may be, at least in part, the result of medical referrals made at the time of WIHS visits or treatment of mental illness. Again, causality cannot be determined given that the data were analyzed retrospectively and relied on self-reported medication use. It is possible that cognitive deficits could have reduced recall of medications used, particularly among HIV+ participants, and thus, our findings may be a conservative estimate of the relationship between NC-AE medication use and HIV infection. Investigation of the cognitive burden of NC-AE medication use is currently underway and is an important next step to better understand the best strategies to manage complex HIV-specific and non–HIV-associated morbidities.


The use of NC-AE medications in women living with HIV is high and more common than in those without HIV infection. NC-AE medication use also appears to be associated with cART use and viral suppression in HIV+ women. The causal direction of these associations remains unclear. Further research is needed to determine if NC-AE medication use exacerbates neurocognitive impairment or if discontinuation of NC-AE medications in cognitively impaired HIV+ individuals leads to improved function. Nonetheless, results from this work further the understanding of non-ARV medication use patterns among HIV+ women. The benefits and harms of NC-AE medications are important clinical considerations for the treatment of comorbid conditions in HIV+ individuals.


The authors acknowledge Bani Tamraz, PharmD, PhD, and Jennifer Cocohoba, MS, PharmD, for their contributions in the study design and initial data analysis. The authors also thank the WIHS participants whose contributions to WIHS made this study possible.


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neurocognition; medication; adverse effects; HIV

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