Encephalitis lethargica
von Economo C
Wien Kin Wschr
1917; 30; 581-5
Encephalitis lethargica.
Its sequelae and treatment
von Economo C
Translated by KO Newman
London: Oxford University Press
Influenza RNA not detected in archival brain tissues from acute encephalitis lethargica cases or in postencephalitic Parkinson cases
McCall S, Henry JM, Reid AH, Taubenberger JK
J Neuropathol Exp Neurol.
2001; 60; 11; 1121-2
Lack of detection of influenza genes in archived formalin-fixed, paraffin wax-embedded brain samples of encephalitis lethargica patients from 1916 to 1920
Lo KC, Geddes JF, Daniels RS
Virchows Arch
2003; 442; 6; 591-6
Neuropsychiatric interpretations of postencephalitic movement disorders
Ward CD
Mov Disord
2003; 18; 6; 623-30
Cortical arousal induced by microinjection of orexins into the paraventricular nucleus of the rat
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11 décembre 2003
Cinquante ans de sommeil O Sacks
Encephalitis lethargica syndrome: 20 new cases and evidence of basal ganglia autoimmunity
RC Dale, AJ Church, RA H. Surtee, AJ Lees, JE Adcock,
B Hardin, BG Neville, G Giovannoni
1 Neurosciences Unit and 2 Neuropathology Department, Great Ormond Street Hospital and Institute of Child Health, 3 Department of Neuroinflammation, Institute of Neurology, University College London, 4 Reta Lila Weston Institute of Neurological Studies, Royal Free and UCLMS, London and 5 Department of Neurology, Radcliffe Infirmary, Oxford, UK


Case example 2
A 15-year-old boy presented with an acute personality change 10 days after an upper respiratory tract infection. He became extremely anxious and worried about his safety. One week later he had an oculogyric crisis and developed upper-limb resting tremor and bradykinesia. This was followed by extreme daytime somnolence, lethargy and intractable hiccough. On examination, he would fall asleep if not stimulated and yawned continuously. Pupillary responses were poorly reactive to light and accommodation. There was tongue tremor, a positive glabellar tap and slow speech. Limb examination revealed rigidity with cogwheeling, bradykinesia and freezing. He had a stooped gait with poor arm-swing. Positive results included an elevated ASOT (350 IU/ml) and a mirrored pattern of OCB in both CSF and serum. PCR of CSF for neurotropic viruses was negative. MRI of the brain showed enhancement of the basal ganglia. He was treated with 50 mg of levodopa twice a day (with carbidopa), which improved his sleep disorder and parkinsonian signs, although he complained of insomnia. His abnormal clinical signs remained for 2 months, following which the levodopa was withdrawn. He has made a complete recovery with no neurological or psychiatric sequelae at 1 year of follow-up.
Abstract : In 1916, von Economo first described encephalitis lethargica (EL), a CNS disorder presenting with pharyngitis followed by sleep disorder, basal ganglia signs (particularly parkinsonism) and neuropsychiatric sequelae. Since the 1916Ð1927 epidemic, only sporadic cases have been described.
Pathological studies revealed an encephalitis of the midbrain and basal ganglia, with lymphocyte (predominantly plasma cell) infiltration. The EL epidemic occurred during the same time period as the 1918 influenza pandemic, and the two outbreaks have been linked in the medical literature. However, von Economo and other contemporary scientists thought that the 1918 influenza virus was not the cause of EL. Recent examination of archived EL brain material has failed to demonstrate influenza RNA, adding to the evidence that EL was not an invasive influenza encephalitis.
By contrast, the findings of intrathecal oligoclonal bands (OCB) and beneficial effects of steroid treatments have provoked the hypothesis that EL may be immune-mediated. We have recently seen 20 patients with a similar EL phenotype, 55% of whom had a preceding pharyngitis. The patients had remarkable similarity to the historical descriptions of EL: sleep disorder (somnolence, sleep inversion or insomnia), lethargy, parkinsonism, dyskinesias and neuropsychiatric symptoms. CSF examination commonly showed elevated protein and OCB (75 and 69% respectively).
Investigation found no evidence of viral encephalitis or other recognized causes of rapid-onset parkinsonism. MRI of the brain was normal in 60% but showed inflammatory changes localized to the deep grey matter in 40% of patients. We investigated the possibility that this phenotype could be a postinfectious autoimmune CNS disorder, and therefore similar to Sydenham's chorea.
Anti-streptolysin-O titres were elevated in 65% of patients. Furthermore, western immunoblotting showed that 95% of EL patients had autoantibodies reactive against human basal ganglia antigens. These antibodies were also present in the CSF in four patients tested. By contrast, antibodies reactive against the basal ganglia were found in only 2Ð4% of child and adult controls (n = 173, P < 0.0001). Rather than showing polyspecific binding, these antibodies bound to common neural autoantigens of molecular weight 40, 45, 60 and 98 kDa.
Regional tissue comparisons showed that the majority of these autoantigens were specific to or enriched in CNS tissue. Immunohistochemistry with secondary staining localized antibody binding to neurons rather than glial populations. Further investigation is required to determine whether these antibodies affect neuronal function (i.e. whether they are pathogenic anti-neuronal antibodies). Histopathology in one case demonstrated striatal encephalitis with perivenous B- and T-lymphocytic infiltration. We believe an EL-like syndrome is still prevalent, and propose that this syndrome may be secondary to autoimmunity against deep grey matter neurons.
Encephalitis lethargica: part of a spectrum of post-streptococcal autoimmune diseases?
Brain January 2004; 127; 1; 2-3, Editorial
Angela Vincent
Neurosciences Group, Department of Clinical Neurology, Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine, John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford UK

Encephalitis lethargica (EL) was first described by von Economo in 1917, shortly after the start of the 1916Ð1927 epidemic. The patients, mostly children of either sex, characteristically presented with headache and malaise, lethargy, insomnia, and ophthalmoplegia. Some recovered but the others either died during an acute fulminating disorder or developed, insidiously or after a variable period of time, movement and/or psychiatric disorders including Parkinsonism, oculogyric crises, chorea, myoclonus, mutism, catatonia or behavioural problems. Although linked by many observers to the influenza epidemic, the epidemic of EL began earlier and lasted longer, and flu virus has not been found in archival post-mortem tissue (e.g. McCall et al., 2001; Lo and Geddes, 2003). Sporadic cases are still reported, but the acute fulminating form seems to have disappeared, and there have been no further reported epidemics.

The paper by Dale and colleagues in this issue of Brain describes 20 patients with a condition presenting with sleep disorder, lethargy, Parkinsonism and neuropsychiatric disorders, including mutism, anxiety, depression, obsessions and compulsions (Dale et al., 2004). The patients ranged between 2 and 69 years of age, but most were children or teenagers. Although we are not told the time between onset and study by the authors, half of the patients had a monophasic illness, and five have made a good recovery, but the others have continuing problems of movement or neuropsychiatric disorders at a follow-up period of <2 years. The clinical features, the course of the disease, cerebrospinal fluid and imaging studies, and histology in one case, are similar to those in cases of EL as originally or subsequently described, except that ophthalmoplegia and oculogyric crises were only found in a minority of Dale's cases. The 20 cases were referred from tertiary neurological centres over a period of 3 years, suggesting a somewhat higher incidence of this EL-like illness than is apparent from the recent literature.

The main emphasis in their paper is the evidence for an autoimmune, possibly post-streptococal, aetiology. High signal changes were found on T2 imaging in 40% of the cases, predominantly in the deep grey matter, which resolved in a few cases examined during convalescence. Oligoclonal bands (OCB) were found in nine of the 13 examined; in five cases OCB were restricted to the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) indicating intrathecal synthesis. These findings are consistent with those reported in sporadic cases; for instance, a recent case of EL showed plasma cell infiltrates in the brain and very high IgG levels in the CSF (Kiley and Esiri, 2001). But in four cases the OCB were detected in both CSF and serum, which suggests an immune response originating in the periphery. Indeed about half of the patients had a previous infection, either of the upper respiratory tract or tonsillitis, and raised titres of anti-streptolysin-O antibodies were present in 65%. Streptococcal infections were also present in some of the original patients with EL, and similarities to Sydenham's chorea were noted during the epidemic. Remarkably, an EL like illness was induced in dogs by vaccination against streptococcus (von Economo, 1931).

Several authors have previously detected antibodies to neuronal antigens in neurological diseases associated, at least in part, with streptococcal infections including Sydenham's chorea and PANDAS (paediatric autoimmune neuropsychiatric disorders associated with streptococcal infections; Kiessling et al., 1993; Singer et al., 1998; Church et al., 2002). Indeed, one recent study suggests that such antibodies to streptococcal antigens cross-react with lysogangliosides on the neuronal cell surface (Kirvan et al., 2003) In the present study Dale et al. (2004), detected antibodies, similar to those they have previously described as anti-basal-ganglia antibodies, by western blotting of soluble extracts of basal ganglia homogenates from human brain. The antibodies were detected at very low frequency in control groups but were found in 95% of EL sera and 4/5 of the CSFs tested. They bound to several different polypeptide bands, 40, 45, 60 and 98 kDa, of which the 40, 45 and 60 kDa bands appeared to be the same as those found previously, by the same team, in other post-streptococcal conditions. This raises issues of disease specificity but would be consistent with their hypothesis that EL is part of a spectrum of immune-mediated post-streptococcal basal ganglia disorders.

Western blotting is often used as a first test for anti-neuronal antibodies, but although it efficiently detects antibodies to non-conformational epitopes, it is likely to miss those potentially pathogenic antibodies that bind to conformational determinants. Moreover, it would have been more informative to use a whole tissue or membrane preparation, rather than soluble extract, since antibodies that exclusively recognise membrane targets would have been missed in the latter procedure. To see, therefore, whether there were serum antibodies binding to intact tissue, they performed immunofluorescence which demonstrated binding of antibodies to axons and neuronal cell cytoplasm. The results indicate the presence of antibodies predominantly to intracellular targets but do not exclude the possibility that there were also antibodies binding to the neuronal cell membranes. There are, however, questions regarding the regional specificity of the antibodies since a careful analysis of different parts of the brain was not done. Binding to bands in homogenates of whole rat brain and rat cerebellum were said to be similar, suggesting that the term 'anti-basal ganglia antibody' may prove to be misleading.

Thus there are some concerns about the neuronal specificity and pathogenic relevance of the antibodies detected, as the authors acknowledge. The presence of antibodies to different protein bands, varying between the individual patients, suggests that they may be secondary to an immune mediated condition rather than causative. In addition, it is not yet clear whether the antibodies to the basal ganglia antigens are cross-reactive with streptococcus A antigens. One would like to see, in future studies, evidence for antibodies binding to the surface of intact neurones derived from rat basal ganglia preparations, or other brain regions for comparison, and absorption experiments with streptococcal antigens to demonstrate cross-reactivity. Moreover, serial studies on individual patients comparing antibodies to streptococcal and neuronal antigens should be performed.

The two most convincing criteria of an antibody-mediated disorder, even in the absence of the detection of specific antibodies, are the response to immunosuppressive therapies and passive transfer of disease to experimental animals. PANDAS has been shown to respond to plasma exchange (Perlmutter et al., 1999), and corticosteroids have been found effective in individual cases of EL (e.g. Blunt et al., 1997) although they were not apparently tested in these patients. Recently, a Tourette's-like syndrome has been transferred to rats by intracerebral injections (Hallett et al., 2000; Taylor et al., 2002). If EL is indeed immune-mediated, it should be possible to show a clinical response to plasma exchange and other immunotherapies, at least early in the course of the disease before permanent changes take place, and successful transfer of disease to experimental animals by immunoglobulin injection. Although passive transfer is still not routinely performed for CNS disorders, the growing number of conditions in which an antibody-mediated aetiology is now suspected (reviewed in Lang et al., 2003), and preliminary studies in which functional effects of antibodies on CNS neurons are being shown (e.g. DeGiorgio et al., 2001; Kirvan et al., 2003), means that further approaches to demonstrate the roles and mechanisms of action of peripherally-induced antibodies in causing CNS diseases need to be developed. However, one should not forget the possibility that the anti-neuronal antibodies may be markers for a destructive process, either T cell-mediated or due to direct toxicity from the infectious agents or the activated immune system. This paper, in suggesting a role for the immune system in EL and in other disorders that appear to form part of a spectrum of post-streptococcal autoimmune diseases, highlights the need for more experimental work in this important area.

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Baron Constantin von Economo1876 - 1931

Sleep as a problem of localisation von Economo 1930 - pdf