HIV-associated neurocognitive disorder (HAND) affects approximately half of HIV-infected patients. Infected non-neuronal cells release neurotoxic factors such as the viral protein transactivator of transcription (Tat) that potentiate NMDAR function. NMDARs regulate synaptic changes observed after exposure to HIV proteins, which may underlie cognitive impairment in HAND patients. Here, we used patch-clamp recording to measure NMDAR-mediated currents in rat hippocampal cultures after exposure to Tat. Tat (4-16 h) potentiated NMDA-evoked whole-cell current and increased the NMDAR:AMPAR ratio of evoked EPSCs. Potentiated currents adapted back to baseline amplitudes after 24 h of exposure to Tat. Pharmacological inhibition of GluN2A-containing NMDARs prevented adaptation, but inhibition of GluN2B-containing NMDARs did not. Pharmacological and genetic approaches determined that potentiated NMDARs activated the kinase Akt, which then activated the E3 ubiquitin ligase Mdm2. Inhibition of protein synthesis prevented adaptation, suggesting that Mdm2 altered gene expression, possibly through its well known target p53. Expression of GFP-tagged GluN1 subunits resulted in fluorescent puncta that colocalized with synaptic markers. Tat (24 h) caused an Mdm2-dependent loss of NMDAR puncta on a timescale similar to adaption of NMDAR function. Activation of the Mdm2 pathway degrades PSD-95, a scaffolding protein that clusters NMDARs at the synapse and enhances their function. Adaptation to the continued presence of excitotoxins that potentiate NMDARs such as HIV Tat may protect from excessive NMDAR activation while also contributing to the synaptic loss that correlates with cognitive decline in HAND.
Synaptodendritic damage correlates with cognitive decline in HIV-associated neurocognitive disorder (HAND). In a cell culture model, we show that the HIV protein transactivator of transcription (Tat) initially potentiates NMDARs that then adapt to the presence of the toxin. Adaptation of NMDAR function was mediated by a GluN2A/Akt/Mdm2 pathway not previously linked to neuroinflammatory disorders such as HAND. Activation of this pathway caused a loss of synaptic NMDAR clusters. Decreased NMDAR function may result from a homeostatic response gone awry and underlie impaired synaptic function in HAND.