Up to half of all people with HIV infection have some degree of cognitive impairment. This impairment is typically mild, but nonetheless often disabling. Although early detection of cognitive impairment offers the greatest hope of effective intervention, there are important barriers to this goal in most clinical settings. These include uncertainty about how self-reported cognitive symptoms relate to objective impairments, and the paucity of bedside measurement tools suitable for mild deficits. Clinicians need guidance in interpreting cognitive symptoms in this population, and a brief cognitive measurement tool targeted to mild impairment. We addressed these two problems together here. The objective of this study was to determine the extent to which performance on cognitive tests and self-reported cognitive symptoms form a unidimensional construct.


Two hundred three HIV+ individuals completed the Montreal Cognitive Assessment, computerized cognitive tasks and a questionnaire eliciting cognitive symptoms. Rasch measurement theory was applied to determine whether patient-reported and performance items could be combined to measure cognition as a unidimensional latent construct.


Performance-based items and cognitive symptoms are arranged hierarchically along the same continuum of cognitive ability, forming a measure with thresholds covering a broad spectrum of ability that has good internal reliability. The cognitive symptoms that fit the measurement model relate to important aspects of everyday life, providing evidence that the identified construct is meaningful.


This finding lays the foundation for a rapid measure of cognitive ability in people with HIV infection that is feasible for routine clinical use, and shows that some cognitive symptoms are systematically related to performance in this population.

DOI: 10.1186/s12883-015-0483-1