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Ann Neurol. 1989 Jan;25(1):50-5.

Clinical significance of cerebrospinal fluid tests for neurosyphilis.

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Neurology Service, Veterans Administration Medical Center, Albuquerque, NM 87108.


From 1978 to 1987, 1,665 cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) fluorescent treponemal antibody absorption (CSF-FTA-ABS) tests were performed as the screening procedure for neurosyphilis. The CSF samples from 48 patients were reactive, and the medical history and results of the CSF-Venereal Disease Research Laboratory test (CSF-VDRL) for syphilis for 38 of these patients were reviewed. Likely active neurosyphilis was diagnosed if the patient had a reactive CSF-FTA-ABS test, recent onset of neurological signs consistent with neurosyphilis, abnormal CSF, and no other recognized cause for the neurological illness. Fifteen patients were so classified. Four had a reactive CSF-VDRL test. The specificity of the CSF-VDRL in diagnosing likely active neurosyphilis was 100%, but the sensitivity was only 27%. The insensitivity of the CSF-VDRL test limits its usefulness as a screening test for neurosyphilis. The CSF-FTA-ABS test appears more sensitive for screening but is less specific than the CSF-VDRL test in distinguishing currently active neurosyphilis from past syphilis. These findings imply that clinical judgment is still essential in establishing the diagnosis of active neurosyphilis.

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