Visualization of Central European Tick-Borne Encephalitis Infection in Fatal Human Cases

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Central European tick-borne encephalitis (TBE) is caused by a flavivirus vectored by the Ixodes ricinus tick. In severe infections, TBE presents as (myelo)meningoencephalitis with considerable mortality. Characteristic neuropathologic changes feature a multinodular to patchy polioencephalomyelitis accentuated in spinal cord, brainstem, and cerebellum. Visualization of viral infection by immunohistochemistry has not yet been achieved. We analyzed immunohistochemically the distribution of viral antigens and its correlation with neuropathologic changes, serological data, and disease duration in 28 brains of cases with a clinical diagnosis of TBE and neuropathologically confirmed (meningo)encephalomyelitis. In 20 brains (including 10 seropositives), viral antigens were detectable. These cases were characterized by relatively short clinical duration ranging from 4 to 35 days. Immunoreactivity was most prominent in perikarya and processes of Purkinje cells and large neurons of dentate nucleus, inferior olives, and anterior horns. In addition, immunoreactivity was detected in neurons of other brainstem nuclei, isocortex, and basal ganglia. There was an inverse topographical association of severe inflammatory changes with presence of viral antigens. Some cytotoxic T cells were in direct contact with tick-borne encephalitis virus (TBEV)-infected neurons. We conclude that 1) TBE viral antigens are immunohistochemically detectable in brains of fatal cases with relatively short natural clinical course; 2) TBE virus neurotropism preferentially targets large neurons of anterior horns, medulla oblongata, pons, dentate nucleus, Purkinje cells, and striatum; 3) topographical correlation between inflammatory changes and distribution of viral antigens is poor; and 4) immunologic mechanisms may contribute to nerve cell destruction in human TBE.

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