Sepsis-associated encephalopathy and its differential diagnosis

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Sepsis is often complicated by an acute and reversible deterioration of mental status, which is associated with increased mortality and is consistent with delirium but can also be revealed by a focal neurologic sign. Sepsis-associated encephalopathy is accompanied by abnormalities of electroencephalogram and somatosensory-evoked potentials, increased in biomarkers of brain injury (i.e., neuron-specific enolase, S-100 β-protein) and, frequently, by neuroradiological abnormalities, notably leukoencephalopathy. Its mechanism is highly complex, resulting from both inflammatory and noninflammatory processes that affect all brain cells and induce blood-brain barrier breakdown, dysfunction of intracellular metabolism, brain cell death, and brain injuries. Its diagnosis relies essentially on neurologic examination that can lead one to perform specific neurologic tests. Electroencephalography is required in the presence of seizure; neuroimaging in the presence of seizure, focal neurologic signs or suspicion of cerebral infection; and both when encephalopathy remains unexplained. In practice, cerebrospinal fluid analysis should be performed if there is any doubt of meningitis. Hepatic, uremic, or respiratory encephalopathy, metabolic disturbances, drug overdose, withdrawal of sedatives or opioids, alcohol withdrawal delirium, and Wernicke’s encephalopathy are the main differential diagnoses of sepsis-associated encephalopathy. Patient management is based mainly on controlling infection, organ system failure, and metabolic homeostasis, at the same time avoiding neurotoxic drugs.

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