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Clin Microbiol Rev. Oct 2002; 15(4): 747–756.
PMCID: PMC126865

Current Consensus Guidelines for Treatment of Neurocysticercosis

Abstract

Taenia solium neurocysticercosis is a common cause of epileptic seizures and other neurological morbidity in most developing countries. It is also an increasingly common diagnosis in industrialized countries because of immigration from areas where it is endemic. Its clinical manifestations are highly variable and depend on the number, stage, and size of the lesions and the host's immune response. In part due to this variability, major discrepancies exist in the treatment of neurocysticercosis. A panel of experts in taeniasis/cysticercosis discussed the evidence on treatment of neurocysticercosis for each clinical presentation, and we present the panel's consensus and areas of disagreement. Overall, four general recommendations were made: (i) individualize therapeutic decisions, including whether to use antiparasitic drugs, based on the number, location, and viability of the parasites within the nervous system; (ii) actively manage growing cysticerci either with antiparasitic drugs or surgical excision; (iii) prioritize the management of intracranial hypertension secondary to neurocysticercosis before considering any other form of therapy; and (iv) manage seizures as done for seizures due to other causes of secondary seizures (remote symptomatic seizures) because they are due to an organic focus that has been present for a long time.

INTRODUCTION

Cysticercosis, the infection caused by the larval stage of the tapeworm Taenia solium, is the most common parasitic disease of the nervous system in humans and the single most common cause of acquired epileptic seizures in the developing world, where prevalence rates of active epilepsy are twice those in developed countries (41, 53, 56, 91, 107).

Before the introduction of modern neuroimaging diagnostic techniques, knowledge of the natural history of human disease was limited and largely based on cases diagnosed either by the presence of subcutaneous nodules, by plain X-rays showing calcifications in the brain or soft tissues, by surgery of cases with intracranial hypertension, or from necropsy data (44-46, 60, 73). The image of an aggressive, lethal disease arose from this clearly biased (towards more severe infestations) group of cases. During the last two decades, the introduction of computed tomography (CT) and later magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) permitted the identification of mild cases with only a few parenchymal cysts, and the terms benign and malign cysticercosis were coined (26, 50). Later, studies in India showed that a vast majority of single enhancing lesions, until then attributed to tuberculosis, were in fact degenerating cysticerci (19, 20, 86, 87).

The introduction of praziquantel (88) and albendazole (49) as specific antiparasitic agents was enthusiastically adopted by many segments of the medical community. The value of these agents has been questioned by some authors (18, 57, 64-66, 76), and an intense controversy still exists. Unfortunately, this has led to confusion and poorly informed decisions in clinical management, especially in areas where neurocysticercosis is not a daily diagnosis. At a recent meeting on cysticercosis held in Lima, Peru, a panel of experts in different aspects of the disease reached a consensus as to the minimal treatment guidelines for neurocysticercosis. Effort was made to identify about which types of neurocysticercosis there was agreement and a uniformly accepted approach. The panel also attempted to define the range of therapeutic approaches for those forms for which there was no consensus

The Parasite

Taenia solium is a two-host zoonotic cestode. The adult stage is a 2- to 4-m-long tapeworm that lives in the small intestine of humans. No other final hosts are known for T. solium tapeworms in nature. As in all cestodes, the gravid proglottids at the terminal end of the worm are full of eggs that are the source of infection with the larval stage, or cysticercosis. The natural intermediate host is the pig, harboring larval cysts anywhere in its body. Humans become infected with cysts by accidental ingestion of T. solium infective eggs by fecal-oral contamination (Fig. (Fig.11).

FIG. 1.
Life cycle of T. solium.

The Disease

After ingestion of Taenia eggs containing infective oncospheres, the parasites become established in the tissues as larval cysts and reach their mature size in about 3 months (15, 110). The parasite may locate almost anywhere in the body. The infection burden varies from a single lesion to several hundreds, and lesions may range in size from a few millimeters to several centimeters (41, 53, 56). Laboratory studies and information from other cestodes suggest that viable cysts actively modulate the host's immune system to evade destruction by it (51, 108).

Symptomatic disease results almost exclusively from the invasion of the nervous system (neurocysticercosis) and the eye and is clearly different in parenchymal neurocysticercosis and extraparenchymal neurocysticercosis. The usual presentation of parenchymal neurocysticercosis is with seizures, which can be controlled with antiepileptic drug therapy. Occasionally, the cysts may grow and produce a mass effect. Extraparenchymal infection may cause hydrocephalus by mechanical obstruction of the ventricles or the basal cisterns, either by the cysts themselves or by an inflammatory reaction (ependymitis and/or arachnoiditis). The so-called racemose variety occurs in the ventricles or basal cisterns and is characterized by abnormal growth of cystic membranes with degeneration of the parasite's head (scolex) (10, 84). These cases follow a progressive course, and even after ventricular shunting, the membranes or inflammatory cells and proteins frequently block the shunt.

In most patients, neurocysticercosis seems to produce symptoms years after the initial invasion of the nervous system by the parasite (44), by either inflammation around the parasite, mass effect, or residual scarring (39). There is a clear association between inflammation around one or more cysts and development of symptoms, especially with regard to seizures (108).

The natural history of parenchymal cysticercosis has been studied by pathological examination (48, 52, 100) and imaging studies using CT (66, 104) and MRI (47). Viable cysts are 10 to 20 mm in diameter, thin-walled sacks filled with clear cyst fluid. On imaging studies, the wall is not visible and the fluid is isodense with the cerebrospinal fluid. There is little or no evidence of perilesional inflammation, and they do not enhance with contrast media on neuroimaging (Fig. (Fig.2).2). As the parasite loses the ability to control the host immune response, an inflammatory process begins. Initially, the cysts show slight pericystic contrast enhancement (Fig. (Fig.3).3). Later they become markedly inflamed and edematous and appear as ring-like or nodular areas of enhancement after the injection of contrast (Fig. (Fig.4).4). This phase has been called “granulomatous cysticercosis, “cysticerci in encephalitic phase,” or “enhancing lesions.” Finally, the cyst is processed by the cellular response, and its remnants either are not detectable by imaging or become calcified lesions (Fig. (Fig.5).5). “Giant” cysts, measuring more than 50 mm in diameter, are occasionally found, located primarily in the Sylvian fissure (Fig. (Fig.6).6). Cysticercotic encephalitis is a rare form of the disease in which patients have numerous inflamed cysticerci, leading to diffuse, severe cerebral edema (Fig. (Fig.77).

FIG.2-9.FIG.2-9.FIG.2-9.FIG.2-9.FIG.2-9.FIG.2-9.FIG.2-9.FIG.2-9.
Viable cysts (contrasted MRI; Fig. 2), cyst with perilesional contrast enhancement (contrasted MRI; Fig. 3), enhancing lesion (contrasted MRI; Fig. 4), calcifications (noncontrasted CT; Fig. 5), giant cyst (contrasted CT; Fig. 6), cysticercotic encephalitis ...

Extraparenchymal neurocysticercosis includes cysticerci in the ventricles and basal cisterns (racemose cysticercosis, Fig. Fig.8).8). Since the cyst membrane is thin and the fluid is isodense with the cerebrospinal fluid, uninflamed extraparenchymal cysticerci are usually not visible on CT and may only reveal subtle, indirect findings on MRI. Scans may reveal hydrocephalus without noticeable cysts, ependymitis (Fig. (Fig.9),9), distorted basal cisterns, or basal meningitis.

Diagnosis

The diagnosis of neurocysticercosis is difficult because clinical manifestations are nonspecific, most neuroimaging findings are not pathognomonic, and some serologic tests have low sensitivity and specificity. A set of diagnostic criteria was proposed in 1996 (43) and recently revisited (37), based on objective clinical, imaging, immunological, and epidemiological data; these criteria consist of four categories that are stratified according to their diagnostic strength (Table (Table11).

TABLE 1.
Diagnostic criteria for neurocysticercosisa

These criteria provide two degrees of diagnostic certainty: definitive diagnosis, in patients who have one absolute criterion or in those who have two major plus one minor and one epidemiologic criteria; and probable diagnosis, in patients who have one major plus two minor criteria, in those who have one major plus one minor and one epidemiologic criteria, and in those who have three minor plus one epidemiologic criteria. This chart of diagnostic criteria for neurocysticercosis has not yet been tested in hospital-based studies.

Differential diagnosis between cysticercosis and other parasitic diseases may be difficult on clinical grounds. However, epidemiological data as well as evidence provided by neuroimaging studies and highly specific immune diagnostic tests usually provide useful diagnostic clues. Cystic hydatid disease almost always appears on CT/MRI as a single, large, spherical, and nonenhancing intracranial cyst. This is a very rare form of presentation of T. solium cysticercosis. Also, the current assay of choice, immunoblot, does not cross-react with echinococcosis. Other condition that may resemble T. solium cysticercosis from the clinical and neuroimaging points of view is coenurosis, an extremely rare condition caused by the cestode Multiceps multiceps.

Therapeutic Alternatives

Therapeutic measures include antiparasitic drugs, surgery, and symptomatic medication.

Antiparasitic drugs.

As demonstrated by experiments in animals, praziquantel and albendazole are effective antiparasitic drugs against T. solium cysticerci. Initial studies with praziquantel noted that doses as low as 5 to 10 mg/kg/day had some effect against cysts, and doses as high as 50 to 75 mg/kg/day were well tolerated. A dosage of 50 mg/kg/day for 2 weeks was adopted by most subsequent studies (11, 13, 16, 29, 32, 59, 63, 67, 68, 71, 94-96, 98, 103, 111), although a single-day regimen of praziquantel has recently been described (24, 25, 35, 69, 80, 81), with similar rates of cyst disappearance in some groups of patients. No dose ranging studies were performed with albendazole in cysticercosis. Instead, the dose previously used in hydatid disease (15 mg/kg/day) was used for cysticercosis. The initial length of therapy was 1 month, later reduced to 15 days and 1 week (2, 3, 14, 21, 29, 55, 63, 89, 90, 94, 95, 98, 111). There is limited experience with higher doses of both drugs (1, 11, 58). Between 60% and 85% of parenchymal brain cysticerci are killed after standard courses of treatment, with most trials showing a higher parasiticidal effect of albendazole.

Between the second and fifth days of antiparasitic therapy, there is usually an exacerbation of neurological symptoms, attributed to local inflammation due to the death of the larvae. For this reason, both albendazole and praziquantel are generally given simultaneously with steroids in order to control the edema and intracranial hypertension that may occur as a result of therapy. Praziquantel interacts with steroids, decreasing its serum concentrations (105), although there is no evidence that this pharmacological interaction affects its parasiticidal properties. Serum levels of phenytoin and carbamazepine may also be lowered as the result of simultaneous praziquantel administration (12). Albendazole has better penetration into cerebrospinal fluid, its concentrations are not affected when given with steroids (61, 62), and it is cheaper than praziquantel. Table Table22 summarizes most trials of antiparasitic therapy for neurocysticercosis.

TABLE 2.
Studies on anti-parasitic therapy for neurocysticercosis

After the initial descriptions of successful use of praziquantel and albendazole in neurocysticercosis, several cases series noted that some types of parenchymal neurocysticercosis can resolve on imaging studies without being treated with antiparasitic drugs (74, 75). Since then, an alternative opinion has been voiced that the acute, severe brain inflammation resulting from their use is unnecessary because parenchymal brain cysticercosis follows a benign course and cysts will degenerate and heal by natural evolution of the disease (17, 18, 64-66). The arguments on both sides of the discussion are contrasted in Table Table33.

TABLE 3.
Arguments in favor of and against antiparasitic treatment for neurocysticercosis

Most published studies on treatment of neurocysticercosis are uncontrolled case series, often purely imaging studies. The main evidence for clinical improvement after antiparasitic treatment of parenchymal neurocysticercosis is based on two independent retrospective studies published in 1992. In one of them, all untreated patients (49 of 49) had seizures in the follow-up, compared to 46% (54 of 118) of albendazole-treated patients (mean follow-up, 3 years) (106). In the other, 74% (20 of 27) of untreated patients had seizures in the follow-up, compared to 17% (16 of 95) in albendazole-treated patients (mean follow-up, 2.5 years) (38). In these studies, the rate of seizure recurrence in those refusing treatment was much higher than noted in patients treated with antiepileptic drugs alone (18, 75, 92). The increased relapse rates in the comparison group could be explained by the fact that patients who did not receive albendazole in these centers were obviously biased towards poor compliance and would have only returned to the hospital in the event of later seizures (54, 109).

To date, there is only one published prospective trial evaluating the clinical evolution of patients with viable neurocysticercosis treated with antiparasitic agents compared to no treatment. Carpio and colleagues studied 138 patients with cystic neurocysticercosis in an open-label study of steroids alone or together with either albendazole or praziquantel (18). Overall, there were no significant differences in the proportion of patients free of cysts at 6 months or 1 year, in the proportion free of seizures for 2 years, or in the rates of sequelae. There was also a high rate of resolution among patients with single lesions, raising the question of whether patients with inflamed lesions were rigorously excluded from that trial. Disappearance of lesions in the control group only occurred in cases with a single lesion, whereas nearly half of the cases that were free of parasites in the treatment arms had multiple cysts. Thus, this study, while not demonstrating significant differences, suggests benefit for those with multiple lesions.

Among many case series (19, 20, 34, 36, 85-87, 99), only three randomized, controlled trials of albendazole have been reported on patients with single enhancing lesions. Two studies demonstrated no significant difference in radiographic resolution (79, 93). The other demonstrated more rapid resolution with albendazole but no significant difference in the frequency of clinical events (5, 6).

Surgery.

Prior to the advent of antiparasitic drugs, surgery was the primary therapy for neurocysticercosis, mainly open surgery for excision of large cysts or cysts in the ventricles. The role of surgical therapy in the management of neurocysticercosis has significantly decreased over time and is now mainly restricted to placement of ventricular shunts for hydrocephalus secondary to neurocysticercosis. The main problem in these cases is the high prevalence of shunt dysfunction; indeed, it is common for patients with hydrocephalus secondary to neurocysticercosis to have two or three shunt revisions (70). The protracted clinical course of these patients and their high mortality rates (up to 50% in two years) were directly related to the number of surgical interventions to change the shunt (23). According to one report, maintenance steroid therapy may decrease the frequency of shunt blockages (97). Many authors advocate shunting combined with antiparasitic drugs to further reduce the incidence of shunt failure (4, 83). Recently, less invasive procedures have been described, specifically the use of neuroendoscopic resection for ventricular cysts (8, 30). Overall results have been excellent, with much less morbidity than with open surgery (9).

Symptomatic and anti-inflammatory medication.

Corticosteroids are frequently used in patients with neurocysticercosis. The most frequent regimen is dexamethasone at doses of between 4.5 and 12 mg/day. Prednisone at 1 mg/kg/day may replace dexamethasone when long-term steroid therapy is required. Corticosteroids are frequently used to decrease neurological symptoms due to the death of the parasite and are the primary management for chronic cysticercosis arachnoiditis or encephalitis, where up to 32 mg of dexamethasone per day is needed to reduce the brain edema accompanying this condition (42). Mannitol, at doses of 2 g/kg/day, is also used for acute intracranial hypertension secondary to neurocysticercosis.

Other medications commonly used to treat symptoms in neurocysticercosis patients are antiepileptic drugs and analgesics. Seizures secondary to neurocysticercosis usually respond well to first-line antiepileptic. Withdrawal of antiepileptic drugs can be achieved, although residual calcifications on CT scan mark patients for whom the risk of recurrent seizures is high. To use only a short period of antiepileptic therapy in patients with a single degenerating cysticercus, assuming that they have acute symptomatic crisis, has been proposed (17), but there are no data to support this assumption.

DISCUSSION GUIDELINES AND METHODS

When the panel began to discuss the preferred treatment for neurocysticercosis, it immediately became clear that neurocysticercosis is not a single disease for which one therapy can be recommended. There are marked differences in clinical presentation, pathogenesis, natural history, and treatment options for the different forms. In the following sections, the consensus and disagreements of the panel are summarized. There was general agreement that the number of parasites is an important factor for determining treatment decisions. The panel chose to categorize patients as those having a single lesion, a few lesions, moderate to heavy parasite loads, and massive infections. For the sake of clarity, a threshold of five or fewer parasites was chosen to represent cases with a few lesions, and a threshold of 100 parasites was chosen to represent massive infections. Since the management recommendations were the same for patients with a single lesion and those with a few parasites, these two categories were later collapsed into one.

The panel categorized all available information according to level of quality of evidence (101) as follows: I, evidence obtained from at least one properly randomized controlled trial; II-1, evidence obtained from well-designed controlled trials without randomization; II-2, evidence obtained from well-designed cohort or case-control analytic studies, preferably from more than one center or research group; II-3. evidence obtained from multiple time series with or without the intervention, including dramatic results in uncontrolled experiments; and III, opinions of respected authorities, based on clinical experience; descriptive studies and case reports; or reports of expert committees.

The information provided below represents the recommended management for patients with the pure forms of the disease. Whenever there was no agreement, the proposed alternatives are described as positions a, b, and c in order of preference, according to the number of experts in the group who favored each option. For patients with mixed presentations of neurocysticercosis, a consideration of risks and benefits must be done to choose the order of interventions.

PANEL CONSENSUS—GENERAL CONCEPTS

(i) Guidelines for treatment of neurocysticercosis must be individualized in terms of number and location of lesions, as well as based on the viability of the parasites within the nervous system

(ii) Growth of a parenchymal cysticercus is not a common event and may be life-threatening. A growing parasite deserves active management, either with antiparasitic drugs or by surgical excision.

(iii) In patients with intracranial hypertension secondary to neurocysticercosis, the priority is to manage the hypertension problem before considering any other form of therapy. Antiparasitic drug treatment is never the main priority in the setting of elevated intracranial pressure

(iv) Antiepileptic drugs are the principal therapy for seizures in neurocysticercosis. In general, seizures should be managed in a similar manner to other causes of secondary seizures (remote symptomatic seizures), since they are due to an organic focus that has been present for a long time. However, after resolution of the parasitic infection with normalization of imaging studies, most patients who are seizure-free can eventually discontinue antiepileptic drugs. Antiparasitic drugs should not be regarded as an alternative for antiepileptic drug therapy.

OVERVIEW OF PARENCHYMAL BRAIN CYSTICERCOSIS

Viable Cysts

There was agreement that albendazole and praziquantel are effective antiparasitic agents, destroying most viable cysts. Whereas there was some disagreement with regard to the best management of patients with few cysts, in patients with more than a few parasites, a balance of risks and benefits led the group to reach a consensus in that the risk of cyst growth, ventricular invasion, or multiple episodes of cyst degeneration with the corresponding symptomatic periods outweighs the potential (but theoretical) benefits of milder inflammation and minor scarring by natural evolution. The majority felt that there is no contraindication for the simultaneous use of steroids, but one expert raised the possibility of interfering with the clearance of parasite remnants. Consensus also broke down on whether to use antiparasitic drugs in patients with massive (hundreds of viable cysts) infections, mainly due to a perception of high risk for severe side effects.

Enhancing Lesions

The panel felt that patients with a single enhancing lesion are likely to do well with antiepileptic drugs independently of whether antiparasitic therapy is added. While most panel members do not routinely use antiparasitic drugs for single enhancing cysticerci, some felt that faster radiological resolution merits its routine use, and others felt that antiparasitic drugs may be used in selected cases, i.e., those in which antiepileptic therapy cannot be adequately monitored and the risks of adverse outcomes from seizures are high. Conversely, for patients with massive infections (cysticercosis encephalitis), there was agreement that they should not be used because it may exacerbate the inflammatory reaction in the brain parenchyma. There was, however, no consensus on whether to use antiparasitic drugs in these patients after resolution of cerebral edema.

Calcifications

For patients with only calcified lesions, there was also consensus that there was no role for antiparasitic agents because the cysts are already dead. The recent description of contrast enhancement and edema around calcified brain cysts led to discussion of whether there will be a role for anti-inflammatory medication in such patients, but no controlled data exist yet (Table (Table44).

TABLE 4.
Guidelines for use of antiparasitic treatment in neurocysticercosisa

OVERVIEW OF EXTRAPARENCHYMAL CYSTICERCOSIS

Whenever hydrocephalus or intracranial hypertension is present, its management should be the first priority. It can generally be managed by means of a ventricular shunt. Since extraparenchymal neurocysticercosis is associated with a worse prognosis, there was a consensus towards aggressive management. The panel felt that patients with cysts located in the ventricular system should be treated surgically, especially if proper technology for neuroendoscopical resection is available. The location of the cysts and the presence of ependymitis need to be assessed prior to planning the surgical approach, and the possibility of acute blockage of the cerebrospinal fluid flow during antiparasitic treatment must be borne in mind.

As for growing parenchymal cysts, a warning was issued for basal subarachnoid cysticercosis. As far as is known, this type of neurocysticercosis is progressive and has a grim prognosis. There was consensus that cysticercosis of the basal cisterns should be treated with antiparasitic drugs. This is based on the limitations of surgical resection, the poor prognosis with diversion procedures alone, and case series that used shunting plus antiparasitic drugs (4, 33, 82). The optimal duration of antiparasitic treatment for this type of lesion is not known, but it was felt that therapy should be sustained for longer than is routine for parenchymal disease (Table (Table4).4). There was consensus that all patients with subarachnoid cysticercosis should be managed with corticosteroids as an adjunct to antiparasitic therapy. Large (giant) cysts in the Sylvian fissure seem to respond well to corticosteroids along with antiparasitic drugs (33, 40, 77, 82).

COMMENTS

Cysticercosis should no longer be considered an “exotic” disease. Besides being the leading cause of late-onset seizures in the developing world, it is now also frequently diagnosed in industrialized countries because of increased immigration from areas where it is endemic, with over 1,000 cases diagnosed annually in the United States alone (91, 107).

Probably the best advice on the treatment of neurocysticercosis would be not to generalize but to approach and assess each case individually. However, neurologists and infectious disease specialists who are not familiar with the disease need at least a basic set of principles to follow. In developing such principles, the panel have tried to avoid the trap of futile discussions and to expose, in the clearest way, the current preferred treatment options for each type of neurocysticercosis.

The selection of a treatment option must include in the consideration of risks and benefits the economic situation of the patient. In areas where neurocysticercosis is endemic, where most cases are seen, follow-up neuroimaging examinations may not be performed for economic reasons, and patients may not have access to modern surgical techniques or may be managed in centers where intensive care is not available. The standard of care will change, but still the best option has to be defined.

The current controversy on whether the use of antiparasitic agents is of benefit in the long-term control of epileptic seizures in neurocysticercosis led to much confusion about whether such agents should be used in any form of the disease. This undesirable situation causes inappropriate use of antiparasitic drugs, i.e., in cases with already calcified parasites or in cysticercosis encephalitis. Even more dangerous, physicians may refrain from using antiparasitic treatment when it is the best treatment option, i.e., for a growing cyst. This “conservative” therapeutic approach may even lead to the death of the patient if the period of inaction extends long enough.

A further conclusion of the panel was the inadequacy of study designs and outcomes in the treatment of neurocysticercosis. This does not reflect so much poorly conducted trials (sometimes the case) as lack of agreement that would permit definition of specific research questions, to homogenize treatment groups in similar trials, or to perform multicentric trials to include larger numbers of patients with similar forms of neurocysticercosis. The inclusion of long-term outcomes, including the proportion of residual calcifications and the appearance of hydrocephalus, is mandatory to provide a fair evaluation of risk-benefit analysis.

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