The Impact of HIV/AIDS on Children’s Cognitive Abilities

HIV in a child that is passed from the mother is a very unfortunate disease. The child has no chance before it is even born. The virus sets in at an extremely early time when there is not even an immune system in effect. A child can be affected in many ways after being infected with the HIV virus. Although, most symptoms will be extremely similar to an adult’s symptoms. The largest factor contributed to a change in symptoms is how the adult behaved before they were infected with the virus. If they had problems already, they will be magnified. In a child, it is different because the child has not had time to develop any mental or physical problems that weren’t apparent at birth. The HIV virus attacks the mind differently than, because the child had no previous way of thinking. There are many mental diseases that can cause cognitive problems within the child. These problems will be able to seen at a very early stage in the disease.

HIV is a member of the retroviruses family. The retroviruses family is known to cause many diseases such as neurological problems and immunological problems. “HIV has been found in the brain as early as 2 days after initial infection” (Bowers). One-half of all children with HIV or AIDS are affected by cognitive problems. This is because HIV can enter the brain and infect parts of the brain that are vital for learning and living. Although scientists are not sure how HIV gets into the brain in the first place, there are new ways of finding out how much HIV is in the cerebrospinal fluid. After the HIV virus has infected the brain, the neurons are the parts of the brains that cause the cognitive problems. The HIV virus begins by killing the brain cells. Neurons in the brain are not killed by HIV cells. The HIV virus indirectly kills the neurons by causing ADC.

There a many different ways that the neurons can be killed. They can be overpowered, infected, or commit neuronal suicide. All of these ways are indirectly related to the HIV virus.

The actual HIV virus does not kill the neurons, it just causes the problems that kill the neurons. When a neuron is killed, cytokines are released and cause extensive damage to neurons. Neurons can also be damaged by an abundant about of cytokines which will in turn cause inflammation. “Neuronal suicide (apoptosis, or programmed cell death) may be caused by free-floating gp120, part of the external envelope of HIV, in the CNS” (Bowers).

Children infected with HIV will also be subject to a depressive disorder during the illness. This affects a child in a variety of ways. Not only does the child already have cognitive disabilities and cannot understand simple things, now they will become depressed. The biggest problem with this is that the child may not even understand why they are depressed. They just have a feeling that they cannot explain, which causes more anguish for the child. This is the worst stage of the disease for the child because being depressed makes them realize that they will die. This could be what causes the depression state in the first place, but will become extremely real to the child after they become depressed. “Seventy percent will develop an organic brain disorder” (Benditt). It is more of a threat if the child already has problem such as substance abuse or a mental health issue. If the child does have these problems than they will show up much stronger. It will also affect the child differently than it would a child that does not have those issues.

A different look at how children can become infected with HIV is through breastfeeding. “Dr. Veronica Hinton explored the cognitive effects associated with different neurodevelopmental disorders” (Perinatal). Breast-feeding is a very easy way to pass HIV from a mother to a child. Some projects that Dr. Veronica Hinton conducted included looking at how children with HIV become infect with Duchenne muscular dystrophy. The study found that the childs cognitive development was extremely impaired. They were impaired in all areas compared to their siblings. The academic, physical, and social tests were all failed by the child compared to the other children in the family “When a clinician has regular weekly sessions with an HIV-infected client, very often he or she will be the first professional to recognize symptoms of physical, mental, or emotional impairment that indeed could be organic in nature” (Buckingham, 1998).

HIV causes a variety of problems for a child. There are many different courses that the virus can take to affect the child. The biggest problem is that people are not being tested for the disease before they have a child. if the adults had been tested and realized that they had the virus, they may not have had the child in the first place which would prevent the growing problem of children with HIV. Being tested and not having children if an adult is tested positive for HIV would be the first step in eliminating children being infected with the HIV virus all together. A child should never have to experience the problems associated with HIV. It is not a decision that is made by the child, instead made by the parent and the child has to deal with it.

Premature birth, low birth weight, and mental problems are just some of the problems that a child will face right at birth. These problems will only escalate over time since HIV still cannot be treated for a complete recovery. Some medication can help the process and delay of the virus, but there is nothing that will get rid of it completely. Experimental medication is usually not available to children anyway. Most of the children that are infected with HIV will not even have a chance because of where they live. How much the family can make is also a large factor.

The largest population of children with HIV is in Africa. They have a very limited amount of resources available for any type of treatment at all. They also have no money for treatment even if it was available. Without being able to treat any problems at all, the child has no chance of survival. All of the problems that HIV can create will happen because no medication is being taken at all. If the treatment was available to the children, maybe it would slow down the infections and eventually prevent the infections from occurring.

The cognitive abilities in a child are extremely affected by HIV. Studies are being done every day to find ways to slow the virus down and prevent it from destroying any part of the immune system. Scientists are still extremely far away from being able to beat the virus, but are making great strides. Hopefully, in the coming future, HIV will be curable in children so that they do not have to experience the problems associated with the disease.


Bowers, M. (n.d.). Retrieved Jan. 09, 2006, from Aids Dementia Complex Web site:

Benditt, P. (n.d.). Retrieved Jan. 09, 2006, from HealthChoices Adult HIV Clinical Practice Guideline Web site:

Buckingham, S. (1998). Retrieved Jan. 09, 2006, from Psychosocial Interventions in Persons with HIV-Associated Neuropsychiatric Compromise Web site:

Perinatal and Neurodevelopmental Research. Retrieved Jan. 09, 2006, from Perinatal and Neurodevelopmental Research Web site:

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