California State University, Northridge assistant professor of psychology Alyssa Arentoft, is spending the next three years examining health risk behavior and neurocognitive functioning in those who have the human immunodeficiency virus.
At the end of that time, she is hoping her findings will provide insight into how to predict risky behavior in those who are HIV positive, as well as add to the body of research on how to improve the lives of those living with the disease.
“HIV was only discovered in the 1980s,” Arentoft said, “and much of the early research, until the late 1990s, early 2000s, concentrated on how to keep people alive. Since effective, antiretroviral treatment has been developed, people are now able to live long-term with HIV. Research has now shifted to looking at the long-term impact on the lives of those who have HIV. We now have a chance to ask questions that we couldn’t ask before.”
In an effort to find answers to those questions, Arentoft has received a $435,000 three-year grant from the National Institute of Health (NIH) Support of Competitive Research Program. The grant supports her research on health risk behavior and neurocognitive functioning in those living with the HIV virus.
Over the next three years, Arentoft and her students will be conducting a pilot study assessing the health of adults with HIV. Volunteer subjects will undergo a five-hour study visit, including a comprehensive neuropsychological evaluation that will, among other things, assess their attention span, concentration abilities, learning and memory, as well as processes called “executive functions.”
“Human behavior is complex. In order to understand it and to predict it, we need to examine each of the components involved,” she said. “In our case, we are focusing on neurocognitive functioning.”
Arentoft said she hopes the information she and her students gather will contribute to a foundation of data on factors that lead to different types of health risk behaviors, given the impact that these can have on public health and the health of those with the disease. Eventually, she said, this may help other researchers studying ways to improve the health of those with HIV and possibly decrease the disease’s transmission.
“HIV is still a highly stigmatized disease and there is still work to be done to understand how it affects those who are living with HIV and those who are at risk of contracting HIV,” Arentoft continued. “We, specifically, are trying to understand what happens in the brain and how this leads to engagement in health risk behavior. Ultimately, we hope that this information will help improve health outcomes among people with HIV as well as those who don’t have HIV.”