Subacute sclerosing panencephalitis

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Subacute Sclerosing
R.K. Garg
B. Karak
A.M. Sharma
Subacute scelorsing panencephalitis
(SSPE) is a common and serious disease of
the central nervous system (CNS), and is
caused by a mutant measles virus. Measles
virus is an RNA virus which belongs to
the morbillivirus subgroup of paramyxo-
viruses. SSPE is an example of CNS disease
caused by aberrant viral gene expression
and persistent viral infection of neural
In western part of world it is considered
a rare disease, with less than 10 cases
per year reported in the United States(l).
The incidence has declined substantially
since introduction of an effective measles
vaccine. The annual incidence of SSPE is
quite high but variable among developing
countries. Saha et al.(2) reported an annual
incidence rate of 21 per million population
in India, in comparison to 2.4 per million
population in Middle East(3). Most patient
give history of primary measles infection at
an early age (< 2 years), which is followed
after a latent period of 6 to 8 years by the
onset of a progressive neurological dis-
From the Division of Neurology, Institute of Medical
Sciences, Banaras Hindu University, 221 005.
Reprint requests: Dr. R.K. Garg, Division of
Neurology, Institute of Medical Sciences,
Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi 221 005.
order. Children infected with measles
under age of 1 year carry a risk of 16 times
greater than those infected at age 5 years or
later(4,5). A higher incidence (male/female
ratio 3:1) has been noted in boys. The inci-
dence is higher among rural children than
city children, children with two or more
siblings, children of lower socio-economic
status, and mentally retarded children.
Neither the age of exposure to measles, nor
severity of infection seem to affect the age
of onset of SSPE or course of illness. Wide-
spread immunization has produced greater
than 90% reduction in the incidence of
SSPE in developed nations (6). In vaccinat-
ed children a prolongation of age of onset
and latency of infection had been observed.
There is no evidence to suggest that attenu-
ated vaccine virus is responsible for spo-
radic cases of SSPE(l).
SSPE virus is distinguished from the
wild type of measles virus in that there
appears to be a defect in assembly of the
virus within the nervous system, and
which is related to an abnormality of
matrix of 'M' protein of the virus. These
conclusions are based on the studies that
show that the matrix protein is the only
structural protein which is undetected in
brain cells from patients with SSPE, and on
observation of a selective decrease in anti-
bodies to the matrix protein in these
patients. Studies on SSPE cell lines further
suggest that the M protein may be synthe-
sized but fails to accumulate and there may
be defective translation of matrix messen-
ger RNA. Thus, an immune response can
be made against the viral hemagglutination
resulting in very high levels of neutralizing
antibody, and yet the antibody is ineffec-
tive in eradicating the virus. So, M-protein
is necessary for correct assembly of pro-
geny virus at the surface of infected cells,
mutations in this protein lead to an anti-
genically distinct form, that can no longer
bind to viral nucleocapsid that initiate
virus maturation. The absence of function-
ally intact, budding virus particle, results
in intracellular accumulation of incomplete
measles virus in brain cells(7-12).
In addition, modulation of measles anti-
gen on the surface of infected cells by
antimeasles antibody has been described,
and this modulation might make the cell
vulnerable to attack by the immune system
and could alter expression of virus within
the cell. It is also possible that antigenic
challenge of a second infection could alter
the dormant state of SSPE virus and result
in disease expression. Sero-epidemiological
data suggest that an exposure to another
virus, such as Epstein-Barr virus or influen-
za type I virus may transform the measles
virus into a defective virus(13,14).
Brain biopsy performed in the early
stages of SSPE shows mild inflammation of
the meninges and brain parenchyma in-
volving cortical and subcortical grey matter
as well as white matter, with cuffs of plas-
ma cells and lymphocytes around blood
vessels. In the subsequent stage, gross
examination of brain may reveal mild
to moderate atrophy of cerebral cortex.
Microscopic examination shows wide-
spread degeneration of neurons and dis-
organization in the cortex. Parieto-occipital
region of cerebral hemisphere is most
severely affected; subsequently, it spreads
to the anterior portions of cerebral hemi-
sphere, the subcortical structrures, brain-
stem and spinal cord. Focal or diffuse
perivascular infiltrates of lymphocytes,
plasma cells and phagocytes are present in
the meninges and in the brain parenchyma.
Inclusion bodies are seen within both
nucleus and cytoplasm of neurons and glial
cells. Cowdry type-A inclusion bodies con-
sisting of homogenous eosinophilic materi-
al, are diffusely seen in neurons and oligo-
dendroglia in patients with rapidly pro-
gressive fatal disease. Another, Cowdry
type-B inclusion bodies are small and mul-
tiple, and are almost always present in
brainstem. These later type of inclusions
are less often seen. Late in the course of the
disease it may be difficult to find typical
areas of inflammation, and the main
histopathological changes are marked with
parenchymal necrosis and gliosis(1,14,15).
Measles viral antigens can be demon-
strated by labeled antibody technique with-
in the inclusions as well in cells without in-
clusions. Data from several studies suggest
that the endothelial cells in the brain are
frequently infected during acute fatal mea-
sles. This site of infection may provide a
portal of entry for virus in persons who
subsequently develop SSPE or measles in-
clusion body encephalitis(16,17).
Clinical Features and Classification
The clinical features and time course of
SSPE are highly variable. The initial symp-
toms are subtle and include intellectual de-
terioration and behavioral changes without
neurological signs or findings. As disease
progresses non-specific manifestations give
way to marked disturbance in motor func-
tion and the development of periodic
myoclonic jerks. Myoclonic jerks initially
involve the head and subsequently trunk
and limbs. Muscular contraction is fol-
lowed by 1 to 2 seconds of relaxation
associated with a decrease in muscle action
potential or complete electrical silence. The
myoclonic jerks do not interfere with con-
sciousness. They are exaggerated by excite-
ment, and may disappear during sleep.
Initially they are infrequent and might be
regarded as stumbling or clumsiness. At
this stage seizures may occur. Macular
chorioretinitis is seen in up to 50% of cases.
Retinopathy and optic atrophy may devel-
op in addition to cerebellar ataxia and
dystonia. Few patients may present with
cortical blindness. The late stage of the dis-
ease is marked by stupor and coma, auto-
nomic failure with loss of thermoregulation
leading to temperature fluctuations and
disturbed sweating. In late stages,
myoclonic jerks diminish in intensity and
eventually disappear. In majority of cases
death occurs between 1 and 3 years after
onset of symptoms. Ten per cent of the pa-
tients have a fulminant course, dying with-
in months, and 10 per cent survive for 4-10
years with extended periods of stabiliza-
tion. Spontaneous improvement may also
occur during any of the stage of the disease
and may last for a variable period of time
before eventual relapse occurs(5,18,19).
Staging of SSPE is done according to
modified Jabbour classification(20), as fol-
lows: Stage-I: mental and behavioral
changes, forgetfulness, irritability and leth-
argy; Stage-II: mycolonic jerks, dyskinesia,
choreoathetosis, ataxia; Stage-Ill: decer-
brate rigidity and decorticate rigidity; and
Stage-IV: severe loss of all cortical function,
flexion posturing of limbs and mutism.
Despite characteristic signs and symp-
toms early diagnosis of SSPE is not always
easy, early detection of myoclonus is im-
portant to make reasonable diagnosis. Sub-
tle behavioral changes are easily missed
by the relatives and these patients are often
treated by a psychiatrist at this stage. In
some cases myoclonus is not present in the
early stages, only atonia may be present
and can be overlooked. Occasionally, the
patient can demonstrate lateralizing neuro-
logical signs, partial seizures, or papill-
edema, these findings can lead to an erro-
neous diagnosis of an intracranial space-
Cerebrospinal Fluid (CSF)
The CSF pattern may be diagnostic.
The fluid is usually cellular with a normal
or mildly elevated protein level and a
markedly elevated gamma-globulin level
(comprising at least 20% of total CSF
Electroencephalography (EEG)
Early in the course of disease, the EEG
may be normal or show only moderate,
non-specific slowing. The typical EEG pat-
tern is usually seen in myoclonic phase and
is diagnostic. EEG picture is characterized
by periodic complexes consisting of bi-
laterally symmetrical, synchronous, high-
voltage (200-500mv) bursts of polyphasic
stereotyped delta waves. They remain
identical in any given lead. These periodic
complexes repeat at fairly regular 4 to 10
second intervals and have a 1 :1 relation-
ship with myocolonic jerks (Fig. 1). Earlier
each complex lasts between 0.5 and 2 sec-
onds, may recur as infrequently as every 5
minutes. These complexes may be present
only during sleep, and may be elicited
by afferent stimuli. Later in the course
of illness, the EEG becomes increasingly
disorganized and shows high-amplitude,
random dysrhytmic slowing, in terminal
stages the amplitude may fall(23-25).
In addition to type-I EEG abnormalities
just described, few other types of EEG ab-
normalities have also been recognized
which have some effect on prognosis of the
disease. Type-II abnormalities are charac-
terized by periodic giant delta waves inter-
mixed with rapid spikes as fast activity.
EEG background is usually slow. Type-Ill
EEG pattern in patients of SSPE is charac-
terized by long spike-wave discharges
interrupted by giant delta waves(24,26).
Yaqub(24) recently demonstrated that vid-
eo-split electroencephalographic monitor-
ing is a more sensitive technique for early
diagnosis and detection of atonia or
myoclonus time-related to EEG periodic
complexes. He further observed that type-
Ill EEG discharges were related to worst
outcome while patients with type-II had
the best outcome. In this study outcome
was determined by the progression of the
Computed tomography (CT) and mag-
netic resonance (MR) imaging have limited
role in the early diagnosis of SSPE. CT scan
of brain is normal in early stages of disease,
in later stages it shows small ventricles and
obliteration of hemispheric sulci and inter-
hemispheric fissure due to diffuse cerebral
edema. Generalized or focal cerebral atro-
phy and ex-vacuo ventricular dilation can
be seen after a prolonged course, but CT
scans are normal sometimes as late as 5
years after onset of the disease(27,28). Low
attenuation areas in the basal ganglion
have also been observed(19). MR is better
in visualizing white matter lesions. White
matter involvement is usually multifocal
and more prominent in parieto-occipital
region and is better seen in T2-weighted
images. This finding is non-specific and
of relatively poor diagnostic value in
SSPE(29). Single photon emission comput-
ed tomography (SPECT) may reveal hypo-
perfusion of cerebral blood flow in the oc-
cipital areas and other affected parts of the
brain as early as stage-I of SSPE.
Brain Biopsy
Brain biopsy or autopsy reveals
perivascular inflammation, neuronal loss,
astrocytosis and gliosis and intranuclear
inclusions in neurons or glial cells. Brain
biopsy is rarely required for establishing a
proper diagnosis(16).
Virological Studies
Antibodies against measles virus can be
demonstrated in both serum and CSF by a
variety of techniques. Usually, the ratio of
antibody content in ,CSF compared to se-
rum is disproportionately high. When the
CSF is examined by electrophoresis or iso-
electric focusing oligoclonal band of immu-
noglobulins are often observed. IgG and
IgM antibodies to measles virus are not
normally found in unconcentrated CSF. In
patients of SSPE these antibodies make up
most of the immunoglobulins of CSF, and
can be detected in dilutions of 1: 4 or more.
Various serological methods used are
complement fixation, hemagglutination
inhibition (HAI), enzyme linked immuno-
sorbent assay (ELISA)(30-32) and virus
neutralization(14). Quantitation of measles
virus-specific antibodies reveals that the
majority of IgG antibodies in CSF are
measles specific, with the specific antibody
index for measles virus usually greater
than ten(22). In rare instances measles anti-
bodies may be undetectable, but become
positive on subsequent study(33). Anti-
body titers may fluctuate during natural
course of illness, and during therapy. In a
study by Saha et al.(2), antibody titer (HAI
method) ranged from 2 to 32 in CSF and in
sera from 8 to 2048. The normal ratio of
titer in serum to titer in CSF is reduced
(below 200) for measles antibodies, where-
as serum-CSF ratios are normal for other
viral antibodies and for albumin, indicating
that increased amounts of measles antibod-
ies in CSF of children with SSPE result
from synthesis within the nervous system
and the blood brain barrier is normal.
Measles virus can also be cultivated
from brain tissue using special cultivation
technique. Viral antigen can be identified
immunocytochemically and viral genome
can be detected by in situ hybridization or
polymerase-chain reaction (PCR) amplfica-
tion method(1).
Diagnostic Criteria
SSPE can be diagnosed if the patient
fulfills three of the following five criteria:
(a) typical clinical presentation; (b) typical
electroencephalographic changes with ste-
reotyped periodic complexes; (c) typical
histo-pathological finding in brain biopsy
or autopsy; (d) elevated CSF globulin
levels, greater than 20% of total CSF pro-
tein; and (e) elevated CSF measles antibody
titers of 1/4 or more by hemagglutination
inhibition method, or 1/20 or more by
No adequate therapy is currently avail-
able for the patients of SSPE. Observations
of some non-randomized studies suggest
that certain immuno-modulator anti-viral
agents can prolong life if long-term treat-
ment is given. Issue of treatment is further
complicated by extremely variable natural
course as few patients may have spontane-
ous prolonged remission(34).
Isoprinosine (Inosiplex)
Isoprinosine is an anti-viral drug which
acts by activating body's immunological
system against measles virus. This drug
increase the number of CD4+lymphocytes,
augment natural killer (NK) cell functions,
potentiate interferons and increase the pro-
duction of interleukin-1 and interleukin-2.
Treatment with isoprinosine (Inosiplex) re-
mains controversial but has been reported
to prolong survival and produce clinical
improvement in some patients. This drug is
recommended in daily dose of 100 mg/kg/
day and without major side effects(l,14).
Nunes et al. (35) observed good results com-
bining trihexyphenidyl and isoprinosine in
controlling myoclonus refractory to sodium
The pathophysiology of natural remiss-
ions and relapses in SSPE in unknown.
The stable state may depend on a balance
between viral replication and body's im-
mune response, as state of immune system
possibly has a role in remissions. The CSF
interferon levels are low in these patients.
Exogenous interferons suppress replication
of virus and also influence immune system.
Intravenous administration of a-interferon
has not proved useful because of poor
penetration of blood brain barrier. The
modest improvement with intraventricular
and intrathecal routes (6 million unit/
dose/week) of administration have been
observed in small number of patients(36).
There are early relapses after discontinuing
interferon therapy. A prolonged therapy is
needed for sustained response(37). Several
authors have reported combined use of a-
interferon plus isoprinosine. In a recent
study, Anlar et al.(38) observed a higher
survival rate in the 22 patients after long-
term (56-108 months) treatment with intra-
ventricular alpha-interferon and inosiplex
as compared to those who did not receive
a-interferon regimen. However, this com-
bination did not affect oligoclonal bands
and intrathecal CSF immunoglobulin (IgG)
Intravenous Immunoglobulins
In isolated case report intravenous im-
munoglobulins have been found effective
in SSPE when administered along with
prolonged therapy with inosiplex. How-
ever, this form of treatment need further
evaluation before it can be recommended
for regular management of SSPE(40).
Cimetidine, an H2-receptor antagonist,
was used in SSPE due to its immuno-
modulatory effect. Anlar et a/.(41) did not
observe any worsening in cimetidine-treat-
ed group during the study period, where-
as placebo group deteriorated significantly.
Symptomatic Treatment
The good general nursing care is the
most important aspect in the management
of SSPE. Anticonvulsants, sodium valpro-
ate and clonazepam, are helpful in control-
ling the myoclonus. If spasticity is marked,
beclofen and other antispastic drugs may
be tried.
One of the most important limitation in
treatment of SSPE is the inability to detect
early manifestations of the disease, when
the inflammatory changes are possibly still
reversible. There is a need for more aware-
ness of the disease amongst primary care
physicians and pediatricians. Home care
system for these handicapped children is
very important and meaningful to increase
"quality of life" in them and their families.
Their families have to have a lot of physi-
cal, psychological and economical stress to
endure. A great deal of external support is
needed for these suffering families to cope
up these stresses.
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    • "nvestigations need to be repeated during the course of follow‑up even if the earlier findings were non‑contributory. Also, a trial of lorazepam can be considered for catatonic features during earlier stages. The case is of particular relevance as annual prevalence of SSPE has been reported to be high at 21 cases per million people in some settings. [14] While the prevalence has been reported to be lower in developed countries, SSPE is of relevance to these countries as well in context of the migrated population. Cases of SSPE have been reported among immigrants even years after resettlement. [13] Also, EEG is a cost‑effective tool in establishing diagnosis of SSPE in such settings. It "
    [Show abstract] [Hide abstract] ABSTRACT: Catatonia is not a usual clinical presentation of subacute sclerosing panencephalitis (SSPE), especially in the initial stages of illness. However, there is only one reported case of SSPE presenting as catatonia among children. In this report, however, there were SSPE-specific changes on EEG and the catatonia failed to respond to lorazepam. We describe a case of SSPE in a child presenting as catatonia that presented with clinical features of catatonia and did not have typical EEG findings when assessed at first contact. He responded to lorazepam and EEG changes emerged during the course of follow-up.
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    [Show abstract] [Hide abstract] ABSTRACT: We present the unique case of a 2-year-old girl with congenital athyreosis who acquired primary measles virus infection at the age of 18 months, coincidentally with an Epstein-Barr virus infection. First neurologic symptoms of subacute sclerosing panencephalitis appeared 5 months later, and the girl died within 6 months after a rapid progressive illness. Factors possibly predisposing to this extraordinary disease course—primary measles virus infection at an early age and lack of evidence for immuno-deficiency—are discussed.
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  • [Show abstract] [Hide abstract] ABSTRACT: An unusual case of panencephalitis in a 4-year-old Japanese boy, with onset at three months after measles infection and rapid progression to a comatose state in approximately one month, is described. A rapid rise in serum measles antibody titre after the onset of the symptoms, and the appearance of various abnormal antibodies in the serum, were noted. Pathologically, the brain showed sclerosing polio- and leucoencephalitis with diffuse gliosis and sporadic intranuclear inclusions. The process is suggested to be intermediate or transitional between acute measles encephalitis and SSPE.
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