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A role for pathogen risk factors and autoimmunity in encephalitis lethargica?

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  • A role for pathogen risk factors and autoimmunity in encephalitis lethargica?
    Molly Bond, Karl Bechter, Norbert Müller, Ludger Tebartz van Elst, Ute-Christiane Meier,
    A role for pathogen risk factors and autoimmunity in encephalitis lethargica?,
    Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology and Biological Psychiatry,
    Volume 109,
    ISSN 0278-5846,
    Abstract: The encephalitis lethargica (EL) epidemic swept the world from 1916 to 1926 and is estimated to have afflicted between 80,000 to one million people. EL is an unusual neurological illness that causes profound sleep disorders, devastating neurological sequalae and, in many cases, death. Though uncommon, EL is still occasionally diagnosed today when a patient presents with an acute or subacute encephalitic illness, where all other known causes of encephalitis have been excluded and criteria for EL are met. However, it is impossible to know whether recent cases of EL-like syndromes result from the same disease that caused the epidemic. After more than 100 years of research into potential pathogen triggers and the role of autoimmune processes, the aetiology of EL remains unknown. The epidemic approximately coincided with the 1918 H1N1 influenza pandemic but the evidence of a causal link is inconclusive. This article reviews the literature on the causes of EL with a focus on autoimmune mechanisms. In light of the current pandemic, we also consider the parallels between the EL epidemic and neurological manifestations of COVID-19. Understanding how pathogens and autoimmune processes can affect the brain may well help us understand the conundrum of EL and, more importantly, will guide the treatment of patients with suspected COVID-19-related neurological disease, as well as prepare us for any future epidemic of a neurological illness.


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    bump this