This article reviews how parasites affect the human nervous system, with a focus on four parasitic infections of major public health importance worldwide, two caused by protozoa (malaria and toxoplasmosis) and two by helminths (neurocysticercosis and schistosomiasis).
Parasitic infections in humans are common, and many can affect the central nervous system where they may survive unnoticed or may cause significant pathology that can even lead to the death of the host. Neuroparasitoses should be considered in the differential diagnosis of neurologic lesions, particularly in individuals from endemic regions or those with a history of travel to endemic regions.
Cerebral malaria is a significant cause of mortality, particularly in African children, in whom infected red blood cells affect the cerebral vessels, causing severe encephalopathy. Neurocysticercosis is the most common cause of acquired epilepsy worldwide and has varied clinical presentations, depending on the number, size, and location of the parasites in the nervous system as well as on the host’s inflammatory response. Toxoplasmosis is distributed worldwide, affecting a significant proportion of the population, and may reactivate in patients who are immunosuppressed, causing encephalitis and focal abscesses. Schistosomiasis causes granulomatous lesions in the brain or the spinal cord.