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To study alterations of mitochondrial membrane potential (Δψ) and the propensity to undergo apoptosis in peripheral blood lymphocytes (PBL) from subjects with acute HIV syndrome; and to evaluate possible modulations of these phenomena by antioxidants that can be used in therapy, such as N-acetyl-cysteine (NAC), nicotinamide (NAM), or L-acetyl-carnitine (LAC).Mitochondrial function and the tendency of PBL to undergo spontaneous apoptosis were studied on freshly collected PBL from patients with symptomatic, acute HIV-1 primary infection, which were cultured for different durations in the presence or absence of NAC, NAM or LAC. By a cytofluorimetric method allowing analysis of Δψ in intact cells, we studied the function of these organelles under the different conditions. PBL apoptosis was evaluated by the classic cytofluorimetric method of propidium iodide staining, capable of revealing the typical DNA hypodiploid peak.Significant Δψ alterations and tendency to undergo apoptosis were present in PBL from the subjects we studied. Indeed, when cultured even for a few hours in the absence of any stimulus, a consistent number of cells died. However, the presence of even different levels of NAC, NAM or LAC was able to rescue most of them from apoptosis. Both a fall in Δψ and apoptosis were evident in PBL collected in the earliest phases of the syndrome (before seroconversion), and changed significantly after a few days. A significant correlation was found between spontaneous apoptosis and tumour necrosis factor (TNF)-α or p24 plasma levels, as well as between apoptosis and the percentages of circulating CD4+ or CD8+ T cells.PBL from patients with acute HIV syndrome are characterized by both significant mitochondrial alterations and a dramatic tendency to undergo apoptosis. The use of NAC, NAM or LAC seems to rescue cells through a protective effect on mitochondria, a well-known target for the action of TNF-α and for reactive oxygen species, the production of which is strongly induced by this cytokine. Thus, our data could provide the rationale for the use of such agents in addition to antiviral drugs in primary infection.