Background: Acute disseminated encephalomyelitis (ADEM) is a central nervous system demyelinating disease that usually follows an apparently benign infection in otherwise healthy young persons. The epidemiology, infectious antecedents and pathogenesis of ADEM are poorly characterized, and some ADEM patients are subsequently diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS).
Methods: We retrospectively (1991–1998) and prospectively (1998–2000) studied all persons aged < 20 years diagnosed with ADEM from the 3 principal pediatric hospitals in San Diego County, CA, during 1991–2000. Acute neurologic abnormalities and imaging evidence of demyelination were required for study inclusion. Epidemiologic variables, risk factors, clinical course, laboratory and radiographic findings, neuropathology and treatment data were analyzed. Interleukin (IL)-12, interferon-γ(IFN-γ) and IL-10 were assayed in blinded manner on cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) obtained prospectively from a subset of ADEM cases and compared with CSF from patients with enteroviral (EV) meningoencephalitis confirmed by polymerase chain reaction (PCR) and controls without pleocytosis.
Results: Data were analyzed on 42 children and adolescents diagnosed with ADEM during 1991–2000, and CSF IL-12, IFN-γ and IL-10 levels were compared among ADEM (n = 14), EV meningoencephalitis (n = 14) and controls without pleocytosis (n = 28). Overall incidence of ADEM was 0.4/100,000/year; incidence quadrupled during 1998–2000 compared with earlier years. No gender, age stratum, ethnic group or geographic area was disproportionately affected. A total of 4 (9.5%) patients initially diagnosed with ADEM were subsequently diagnosed with MS after multiple episodes of demyelination. Although most children eventually recovered, 2 died, including 1 of the 3 ultimately diagnosed with MS. Magnetic resonance imaging was required for diagnosis among 74% of patients; computerized tomography findings were usually normal. Patients with EV had significantly higher mean CSF IFN-γ (P = 0.005) and IL-10 (P = 0.05) than patients with ADEM and controls without CSF pleocytosis. CSF from ADEM patients had CSF cytokine values statistically similar to those of 3 patients subsequently diagnosed with MS.
Conclusions: ADEM is a potentially severe demyelinating disorder likely to be increasingly diagnosed as more magnetic resonance imaging studies are performed on patients with acute encephalopathy. Further characterization of the central nervous system inflammatory response will be needed to understand ADEM pathogenesis, to improve diagnostic and treatment strategies and to distinguish ADEM from MS.