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J Neuropathol Exp Neurol. 2001 Jul;60(7):696-704.

Influenza RNA not detected in archival brain tissues from acute encephalitis lethargica cases or in postencephalitic Parkinson cases.

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FDepartment of Cellular Pathology and Genetics, Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, Washington, DC, USA.


Encephalitis lethargica (EL) was a mysterious epidemic. temporally associated with the 1918 Spanish influenza pandemic. Numerous symptoms characterized this disease, including headache, diplopia, fever, fatal coma, delirium, oculogyric crisis, lethargy, catatonia, and psychiatric symptoms. Many patients who initially recovered subsequently developed profound, chronic parkinsonism. The etiologic association of influenza with EL is controversial. Five acute EL autopsies and more than 70 postencephalitic parkinsonian autopsies were available in the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology (AFIP) tissue repository. Two of these 5 acute EL cases had histopathologic changes consistent with that diagnosis. The remaining 3 cases were classified as possible acute EL cases as the autopsy material was insufficient for detailed histopathologic examination. RNA lysates were prepared from 29 CNS autopsy tissue blocks from the 5 acute cases and 9 lysates from blocks containing substantia nigra from 2 postencephalitic cases. RNA recovery was assessed by amplification of beta-2-microglobulin mRNA and 65% of the tissue blocks contained amplifiable RNA. Reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) for influenza matrix and nucleoprotein genes was negative in all cases. Thus, it is unlikely that the 1918 influenza virus was neurotropic and directly responsible for the outbreak of EL.

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