Delirium pathophysiology: An updated hypothesis of the etiology of acute brain failure

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Delirium is the most common neuropsychiatric syndrome encountered by clinicians dealing with older adults and the medically ill and is best characterized by 5 core domains: cognitive deficits, attentional deficits, circadian rhythm dysregulation, emotional dysregulation, and alteration in psychomotor functioning.


An extensive literature review and consolidation of published data into a novel interpretation of known pathophysiological causes of delirium.


Available data suggest that numerous pathological factors may serve as precipitants for delirium, each having differential effects depending on patient-specific patient physiological characteristics (substrate). On the basis of an extensive literature search, a newly proposed theory, the systems integration failure hypothesis, was developed to bring together the most salient previously described theories, by describing the various contributions from each into a complex web of pathways—highlighting areas of intersection and commonalities and explaining how the variable contribution of these may lead to the development of various cognitive and behavioral dysfunctions characteristic of delirium. The specific cognitive and behavioral manifestations of the specific delirium picture result from a combination of neurotransmitter function and availability, variability in integration and processing of sensory information, motor responses to both external and internal cues, and the degree of breakdown in neuronal network connectivity, hence the term acute brain failure.


The systems integration failure hypothesis attempts to explain how the various proposed delirium pathophysiologic theories interact with each other, causing various clinically observed delirium phenotypes. A better understanding of the underlying pathophysiology of delirium may eventually assist in designing better prevention and management approaches.

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