Systemic lupus erythematosus (CNS manifestations)

Last revised by Rohit Sharma on 15 May 2022

Central nervous system manifestations of systemic lupus erythematosus (CNS lupus) describe a wide variety of neuropsychiatric manifestations that are secondary to systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) in the central nervous system (CNS).

For a general discussion, and for links to other system specific manifestations, please refer to the article on systemic lupus erythematosus

Neuropsychiatric manifestations occur in up to 80% of patients with SLE 1.

The American College of Rheumatology (ACR) defines 19 distinct clinical central and peripheral neuropsychiatric syndromes that can occur in SLE, twelve of which are due to CNS involvement 2-7. These syndromes can precede other symptoms of SLE or may occur at any point during the course of the disease, thus, the clinical presentation is extremely variable 2-7.

  • seizure disorders
    • seizures and epilepsy are the most common neurological feature of SLE, occurring in up to 20% of all patients 4
    • etiology of seizures is uncertain, but may accompany vasculitis or may be due to a low-grade autoimmune encephalopathy 3-5
    • presentation may be of generalized or focal seizures 3-6
  • cerebrovascular disease
  • demyelinating syndrome
    • although included in the initial ACR definition, it is now thought that ‘myelopathy’ (see below) encompasses this appropriately, and presentations truly akin to multiple sclerosis, once termed ‘lupoid sclerosis’, are unlikely to be associated with SLE at all 3
  • myelopathy
  • headache
    • although included in the initial ACR definition the causative role that SLE plays in inducing migraine or benign intracranial hypertension (BIH), both conditions which have classically been associated with SLE, has come into doubt in recent years 3,4
    • regardless, up to 40% of patients with SLE experience at least one severe headache per year, which may or may not have other migrainous features or features of BIH, as per non-SLE patients with migraine 3,4
  • movement disorder
    • movement disorders are rarely described in association with SLE 3-5
    • it is thought that infarction or neuronal antibodies may play a role in the etiology of these movement disorders in SLE 3-5
    • the most common manifestation is chorea, which has been found to occur in approximately 1% of patients, however isolated cases reports of other movement disorders such as hemiballismus and parkinsonism have been described and attributed to SLE 3-5
  • aseptic meningitis
    • aseptic meningitis is considered to be a very rare feature in SLE, and most cases can be attributed to previous myelopathy, vasculitis, or therapeutic drugs (e.g. non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) 3,4
    • it presents with classic signs of meningeal irritation (see meningitis) but without positive bacterial cerebrospinal fluid cultures 3,4
  • psychosis
    • psychosis is a classic psychiatric manifestation of SLE but only occurs in approximately 5% of patients 4
    • the etiology remains uncertain, however patients are more likely to be positive for anti-ribosomal P antibodies and anti-NMDA receptor antibodies; vasculitis can also present with psychosis 5,9
    • as with other presentations of psychosis, it is clinically characterized by delusions and hallucinations 3,4
  • acute confusional state
    • although many studies use psychosis and ‘acute confusional state’ synonymously, the ACR defines it instead as being a delirium 3,4
    • the etiology again is uncertain and thought to be multifactorial, with small vessel dementia being a significant contributor; vasculitis can also present with delirium 3-5
    • as with other presentations of delirium, acute confusional states in SLE can vary from mild disturbances of consciousness to coma, encompassing a range of hypoaroused and hyperaroused states 3,4
  • cognitive dysfunction
    • cognitive dysfunction is very common in SLE, occurring in up to 80% of patients, although severe dysfunction resulting in dementia is rare 10
    • the etiology is uncertain and is again, thought to be multifactorial 5
  • mood disorder
    • many mood disorders, such as depression, have been reported in SLE 3,4
    • although generally thought to be non-melancholic in nature, brought upon by the patient’s reaction to managing their chronic illness, there may be other factors involved such as positive anti-ribosomal P antibodies or anti-NMDA receptor antibodies 4,5
  • anxiety disorder
    • similar to mood disorders in SLE, anxiety is generally thought to be brought upon the patient’s reaction to managing their chronic illness, but there may be other factors involved such as positive anti-ribosomal P antibodies or anti-NMDA receptor antibodies 3-5

The pathogenesis of SLE is uncertain but is thought to be multifactorial involving genetic, hormonal, immunological, and environmental factors 4. The specific etiologies of the neuropsychiatric CNS manifestations of SLE have been discussed above, but are also generally uncertain.

As with the clinical features, CNS lupus has an extremely varied radiographic presentation 11-15. Although not every described neuropsychiatric syndrome of CNS lupus has radiographic features, those that do, mainly the cerebrovascular disease and myelopathy, tend to be non-specific 11-15. Therefore, all of these manifestations in CNS lupus are radiographically indistinguishable from their appearance due to other etiologies 11.

  • small vessel disease and cerebral atrophy
    • most common feature and seen in up to 25% of cases 11
    • CT: small vessel dementia is characterized by diffuse symmetrical hypodensities 11-14
    • MRI: small vessel dementia is characterized by subcortical and periventricular white matter lesions on T2-weighted sequences 11-14
  • ischemic stroke
    • another common feature that may affect any vascular territory 12
    • CT: hypodense lesion 11-14
    • MRI: varying intensity (see ischemic stroke11-14
  • intracerebral hemorrhage
    • CT: acutely hyperdense with hypodense perihaematomal edema 11,13
    • MRI: varying intensity (see aging blood on MRI11,13
  • dural venous sinus thrombosis
    • CT: hyperdense sinus reflective of thrombosis 11
    • MRI: variable appearance (see dural venous sinus thrombosis11
    • angiography: filling defect in affected venous sinus 11
  • cerebral vasculitis (lupus angiitis)
    • may be a cause of stroke, but may also present as its own syndrome as aforementioned
    • CT: multiple scattered hypodensities 16
    • MRI: non-specific white matter hyperintensities on T2-weighted sequences 16
    • angiography: focal segmental vascular narrowing and ‘beading’ may be seen 12,16
  • transverse myelitis
    • may be a standalone feature or be present with other features of NMO 11,17
    • CT: variable enlargement of the cord and variable enhancement 11,17
    • MRI: cord lesions that are hyperintense on T2-weighted sequences with variable enhancement 11,17
  • optic neuritis
    • may be a standalone feature or be present bilaterally with other features of NMO 17
    • CT: often unremarkable 17
    • MRI: optic nerve lesion that is hyperintense on T2-weighted sequences 17
  • aseptic meningitis
  • brain abscess
    • although not described in the ACR criteria, brain abscesses may develop secondary to cardiac valvular mycotic emboli 12
    • CT: centrally hypodense with an iso- or hyperdense ring 12
    • MRI: varying signal characteristics depending on the sequence, but strikingly central high diffusion signal on DWI 12
  • posterior reversible encephalopathy syndrome (PRES)
    • although not described in the ACR criteria, PRES may develop secondary due to hypertension (e.g. lupus nephritis, corticosteroid use) and other complications of SLE (e.g. TTP11,19
    • CT: most commonly hypodensity in the occipital and parietal regions 11
    • MRI: affected regions are hypointense on T1-weighted sequences, hyperintense on T2-weighted sequences, and may have variable enhancement 11
  • anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis
    • although not described in the ACR criteria, anti-NMDA receptor antibodies have been associated with psychiatric symptoms of CNS lupus, and resultant anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis has also been rarely described 20
    • MRI: non-specific T2-weighted hyperintensities in the medial temporal lobe, cerebral/cerebellar cortex, basal ganglia, and brainstem 20

Treatment is highly variable and is often symptomatic depending on the specific neuropsychiatric manifestation exhibited 6.  

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Cases and figures

  • Case 1: with cerebral vasculitis
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  • Case 2: with cerebral vasculitis
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  • Case 3: with striatocapsular infarct
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  • Case 4: with cerebral vasculitis
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  • Case 5: with transverse myelitis
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