Graduate Program in Neuroscience, University of Minnesota Medical School, Minneapolis, MN, 55455, USA; Department of Pharmacology, University of Minnesota Medical School, Minneapolis, MN, 55455, USA. Electronic address: [Email]
HIV-Associated Neurocognitive disorder (HAND) affects nearly half of infected patients. The HIV envelope protein gp120 is shed by infected cells and is a potent neurotoxin in vitro that reproduces many aspects of HAND when expressed in vivo. Here, we show that HIV gp120 increases the amplitude of a tonic current mediated by γ-aminobutyric acid type-A receptors (GABAARs). Treating rat hippocampal cultures with 600 pM gp120IIIB for 4 h increased a tonic bicuculline-sensitive current, which remained elevated for 24 h. The increased current resulted from upregulation of extrasynaptic α5-containing GABAARs, as indicated by inhibition with the selective inverse agonist basmisanil. Treatment with gp120 increased α5-GABAAR immunoreactivity on the cell surface without new protein synthesis. The increase in tonic inhibition was prevented by a C-X-C chemokine receptor type 4 (CXCR4) antagonist or elimination of microglia from the culture. Treatment with interleukin-1β (IL-1β) increased the tonic current and an IL-1 receptor antagonist blocked the gp120-evoked response. Pharmacological or genetic inhibition of p38 mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK) prevented the gp120-evoked increase in tonic current and direct activation of a mutant form of p38 MAPK expressed in neurons increased the current. Collectively, these data show that gp120 activates CXCR4 to stimulate microglia to release IL-1β. Subsequent stimulation of IL-1 receptors activates p38 MAPK in neurons leading to the upregulation of α5-containing GABAARs. Increased tonic inhibition impairs neuroplasticity and inhibition of α5-containing GABAARs improves cognitive function in disease models. Thus, gp120-induced upregulation of α5-containing GABAARs presents a novel therapeutic target for HAND.