Neil Canavan

November 18, 2011

November 18, 2011 (San Francisco, California) — Patients infected with hepatitis C virus (HCV) can experience a marked decline in neuropsychological cognitive function in the first 14 weeks of combination pegylated interferon and ribavirin therapy. This poses a potential treat to treatment adherence, said clinical psychologist Jeffrey J. Weiss, PhD, MS, from Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City, here at The Liver Meeting 2011: American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases 62nd Annual Meeting.

These data are from a large prospective study looking at early treatment discontinuation and the onset of neuropsychiatric symptomatology in HCV monoinfected and HCV/HIV coinfected treatment-naïve patients receiving combination pegylated interferon/ribavirin therapy, Dr. Weiss explained.

"A lot of work has focused on depression, and not to the decrements in cognitive function," said Dr. Weiss. A host of neuropsychiatric symptoms should be considered when initiating a new treatment.

"In this era of direct-acting antivirals, when we're asking patients to take medications 3 times a day (every 6 to 9 hours)..., we need to be aware that, just at baseline, 40% to 50% of patients...[have] substantial deficits in cognitive functioning."

This investigation established the degree of neurocognitive decline during the first 12 and 48 weeks of treatment. Both HCV-infected and HCV/HIV-coinfected patients were evaluated. Neuropsychological instruments were used to explore which domains of cognitive functioning are most affected by combination pegylated interferon/ribavirin treatment, and whether being coinfected with HIV adds to the decrements in cognitive functioning.

There were no significant differences at baseline between the HCV-infected and HCV/HIV-coinfected cohorts for age, sex distribution, ethnicity, HCV RNA viral load, HCV genotype, or stage of liver disease. There were also no differences between the 2 groups at baseline for neuropsychological scores. However, although the same percentage of patients in the HCV and HCV/HIV cohorts reported depression, HCV patients had significantly worse depression scores.

After treatment, global neuropsychological function declined significantly in HCV patients during the first 24 weeks of HCV treatment. Domains with the greatest declines were memory, executive function, and motor function. "The HCV monoinfected group also had a greater decline in neuropsychological function than the coinfected group in the first 12 weeks," said Dr. Weiss. "This is probably due to more depression among HCV patients at baseline."

How a patient's declining neuropsychological function affects their behavior is key, and can depend on clinical history, Dr. Weiss explained. "Patients who have a history of cognitive dysfunction might respond less to the onset of new symptoms. Patients with a significant pathology who are already well engaged in psychiatric treatment tend to do quite well on [antiretroviral] treatment because they are familiar with the symptoms and are being well managed." Those who are high functioning at baseline will have more trouble; to be successfully managed, the healthcare provider must be aware of the potential for central nervous system (CNS)-related treatment nonadherence.

CNS and the Hepatologist

Raymond T. Chung, MD, vice chief of the gastrointestinal unit and medical director of the liver transplant program at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, agrees that the hepatologist must be part psychiatrist. "We field these patients rather then pass them off since there can often be overlap with true advanced hepatic disease and hepatic encephalopathy."

He is mindful of the potential impact of HCV medications. "It has been a modest issue with both HCV/HIV and HCV alone." Symptoms are often called "brain fog," Dr. Chung explained. "This fog does get in the way, in high-functioning individuals, of their ability to carry out intricate calculative functions and memory at work, for instance." It would not be surprising for such a patient to become frustrated and consider forgoing medication, he observed.

Dr. Chung considers the issue manageable if it is proactively addressed. However, like many clinicians at the meeting, he's looking more toward preventing than managing adverse effects by eliminating pegylated interferon from standard HCV treatment.

Dr. Weiss reports being a consultant for Vertex Pharmaceuticals and Kadmon Pharmaceuticals. Dr. Chung has disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

The Liver Meeting 2011: American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases (AASLD) 62nd Annual Meeting. Abstract 972. November 6, 2011.

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