Review: Neuropathology of acute phase encephalitis lethargica: A review of cases from the epidemic period

L. L. Anderson, J. A. Vilensky, R. C. Duvoisin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

13 Scopus citations


Introduction: Encephalitis lethargica (EL), an epidemic disease of the early 20th century, has continued to be diagnosed sporadically since that time, including a report of 20 new cases in 2004. Many of the recent case reports state that the primary neuropathology of acute EL consists of inflammatory changes and lesions within the midbrain, basal ganglia and substantia nigra. However, the neuropathology of acute EL cases from the epidemic period was actually much more widespread. Methods: In order to characterize the neuropathology of acute phase EL, we developed a database of EL pathology based on 112 cases from the years 1915 to 1940, of which most died within 2 weeks of EL onset. Results: Our analysis revealed that cortical damage was prevalent in 75% of the 112 cases; damage to the meninges and brainstem occurred in approximately half of the cases; and the substantia nigra was damaged in only 13% of these acute cases. We also found that after 1921, damage to cranial nerve nuclei was not reported. An analysis of the neuropathology and clinical symptoms revealed little correlation. Conclusions: Based on these findings, putative modern cases of acute EL with MRI/CT indicated lesions confined solely to the midbrain, brainstem, and/or basal ganglia should not be considered, consistent with that reported during epidemic period.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)462-472
Number of pages11
JournalNeuropathology and Applied Neurobiology
Issue number5
StatePublished - Oct 1 2009


  • Epidemic encephalitis
  • Postencephalitic Parkinsonism
  • Von Economo's disease

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Clinical Neurology
  • Pathology and Forensic Medicine
  • Neurology
  • Histology
  • Physiology (medical)

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