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Monica Diaz, MD, MS
Monica Diaz, MD, MS

Monica M. Diaz, MD, MS, assistant professor in the Department of Neurology, was awarded a Clinical Research Training Scholarship from the American Academy of Neurology (AAN) in support of her research project titled, “Neurofilament light as a marker of synaptic loss in cognitively impaired older people with HIV.”

Through this award, the AAN aims to recognize the importance of good clinical research and to encourage young investigators in clinical studies. The award consists of a commitment of $65,000 per year for two years, plus a $10,000 per year stipend to support education and research-related costs for a total of $150,000.

“I am thankful to the AAN for this award and for the local mentor and departmental support I receive. This award will allow me to continue to develop my career as a clinician-scientist in neurological complications of HIV,” said Diaz. Diaz will be mentored by Rick Meeker, PhD, professor of neurology in the UNC Department of Neurology, and David Murdoch, MD, associate professor of medicine in the Department of Pulmonary, Allergy, and Critical Care Medicine at Duke.

The project seeks to establish novel methods of in vivo detection of neurodegeneration in older, cognitively-impaired people with HIV. HIV-associated neurocognitive disorder (HAND) can affect up to 50% of older people with HIV, but is challenging to diagnose. Neurofilament light is a marker of neurodegeneration, but its relationship to synaptic loss, a correlate of cognitive impairment, has not been established in HIV.

Dr. Diaz proposes to determine the relationship between in vivo synaptic loss using novel 11C-UCB-J PET/MR brain imaging and (1) biomarkers of disease activity (including neurofilament light) and (2) clinically-detectable HAND using neuropsychological testing in older, virally-suppressed, mild-cognitively-impaired people with HIV. This study will enhance detection and treatment of one of the most common comorbidities in aging people with HIV, milder forms of HAND.