Symptoms associated with brain inflammation are as varied as the brain’s functional capacity and can affect everything from emotion to movement. Because of the diversity of symptoms, brain inflammation can be extremely difficult to diagnose and, at times, the use of imaging and lab tests may reveal the underlying cause of symptoms.
Symptoms of brain inflammation
Symptoms associated with chronic brain inflammation can be characterized as neurological (arising from brain, spinal cord, nerves, or autonomic nervous system) or psychological (mental, emotional, and behavioral). It is important to note that as scientific understanding grows, psychological disorders are increasingly found to be neurologic in origin. While initial symptoms may be as nonspecific as fatigue and headache, patients with post-infectious brain inflammation typically develop multiple neuropsychiatric symptoms within 2-3 weeks of infection or reinfection. (Mayo Clinic) and The Encephalitis Society (global expert consortia). The rapid onset of the below listed wide ranging symptoms is often a clue.
- decreased consciousness
- movement disorders
- motor and vocal tics
- cognitive issues (including memory problems and poor concentration)
- speech problems
- chronic fatigue
- sleep disturbances
- autonomic instability (variation in blood pressure and heart rate)
- trouble breathing
- joint or nerve pain
- brain fog
- disturbed behavior
- restrictive eating
- intrusive thoughts
- delusions and hallucinations
- agitation or aggression
- mood dysregulation
- personality changes
Diagnosing brain inflammation
Diagnosing brain inflammation begins with a careful review of a patient’s medical history and a detailed physical exam. Because the symptoms above can occur in several different conditions, with or without brain inflammation, imaging and lab tests (taking samples of blood or cerebrospinal fluid) can help with possible diagnoses.
Extensive testing is often required to diagnose the underlying cause of brain inflammation:
- Blood samples – are used to test for markers of inflammation and, importantly, to identify harmful antibodies; sometimes proinflammatory cytokines are measured or immune deficiencies are detected.
- Imaging (PET, CT, MRI) – is often used to rule out a diagnosis of stroke, brain tumor, or aneurysm, as well as to detect and understand the extent of inflammation (e.g., basal ganglia injury)
- Electroencephalograms (EEGs) – used to measure brain activity, EEGs are often used to rule out diagnosis of seizures
- Lumbar puncture – sampling cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), can help rule out infection and detect inflammatory cells, excess protein, and antibodies against neuronal tissues.