Emotion processing has received little research focus in HIV, but emerging evidence suggests that abilities such as facial affect discrimination may be features of HIV-associated neurocognitive disorder (HAND). The present study hypothesized that individuals with HAND would evidence an emotion processing deficit relative to cognitively unimpaired individuals with HIV and seronegative comparison participants on a task assessing these abilities. Moreover, it was expected that this deficit would be significantly associated with social aspects of everyday functioning.
To explore these hypotheses, 37 HIV+ individuals with HAND, 46 HIV+ without HAND, and 38 HIV-seronegative comparison participants were administered the CogState Social Emotional Cognition Task (SECT) and the UCSD Performance-based Skills Assessment-Brief (UPSA-B).
Results revealed that the HAND group was more likely to have impaired accuracy and slower reaction time relative to the comparison groups on the SECT task. In fact, individuals with HAND were almost 10 times more likely to be impaired on emotion processing accuracy than HIV+ without HAND. Among individuals with HIV, accuracy (but not reaction time) was independently related to a functional capacity measure tapping social ability, but not to a similar measure without a social component (UPSA-B Communication and Finances subscales, respectively).
These results suggest that disruption of emotion processing may be an important feature of HAND that has clinical value as an independent predictor of real-world activities that involve social components. Future research should prospectively investigate this relationship, which may inform of intervention strategies for improving everyday functioning.