This article provides an overview of the imaging modalities used in the evaluation of central nervous system (CNS) autoimmune, paraneoplastic, and neuro-rheumatologic disorders. An approach is outlined for interpreting imaging findings in this context, synthesizing a differential diagnosis based on certain imaging patterns, and choosing further imaging for specific diseases.
The rapid discovery of new neuronal and glial autoantibodies has revolutionized the autoimmune neurology field and has elucidated imaging patterns characteristic of certain antibody-associated diseases. Many CNS inflammatory diseases, however, lack a definitive biomarker. Clinicians should recognize neuroimaging patterns suggestive of inflammatory disorders, as well as the limitations of imaging. CT, MRI, and positron emission tomography (PET) modalities all play a role in diagnosing autoimmune, paraneoplastic, and neuro-rheumatologic disorders. Additional imaging modalities such as conventional angiography and ultrasonography can be helpful for further evaluation in select situations.
Knowledge of imaging modalities, both structural and functional, is critical in identifying CNS inflammatory diseases quickly and can help avoid invasive testing such as brain biopsy in certain clinical scenarios. Recognizing imaging patterns suggestive of CNS inflammatory diseases can also facilitate the early initiation of appropriate treatments to diminish morbidity and future disability.