Cerebral aneurysms are scary things. It is alarming enough that they exist, but it is more spine-chilling that they enlarge with time. The most infamous aneurysm arises from the posterior communicating artery, the so-called PCOM aneurysm. And it signifies its sinister intent when it gradually enlarges and compresses its vascular neighbour, the third cranial nerve, otherwise known as the oculomotor nerve. A dysfunctional third nerve manifests with a droopy eyelid (ptosis) and double vision (diplopia). The reason for the double vision becomes obvious when the neurologist examines the eyes; one eyeball is out of kilter and is deviated downwards and outwards; it is indeed down and out! The pupil is also very widely dilated (mydriasis). These are among the most worryingred flags in medicine, and a very loud call to arms. Cerebral aneurysms however often wave no flags, red or otherwise. Indeed the most malevolent of them will expand quietly until they reach horrendous proportions, and then, without much ado, just rupture. They are therefore veritable time bombs…just waiting to go off.
Cerebral aneurysm however do not need to reach large proportions to rupture; some just rupture when they feel like. Aneurysms under 7mm in diameter however are less prone to rupture. A rupturing aneurysm presents with very startling symptoms. The most ominous is a sudden onset thunderclap headache (TCH), subjects reporting feeling as if they have been hit on the back of the head with a baseball or cricket bat. It is not quite known what non-sporting patients experience-for some reason they never get aneurysms in neurology textbooks! More universally appropriate, a ruptured aneurysm may manifest as sudden loss of consciousness. Both symptoms result from leakage of blood into the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) space, a condition known as a subarachnoid haemorrhage (SAH).
You may breath a small sigh of relief here because the vast majority of people with thunderclap headaches do not have subarachnoid haemorrhage. Unfortunately, every person who presents with a thunderclap headache must be investigated- to exclude (hopefully), or confirm (ruefully), this catastrophic emergency. The first test is a CT head scan which identifies most head bleeds. The relief of a normal scan is however short-lived because some bleeds do not show on the CT. The definitive test to prove the presence or absence of a bleed is less high tech, but more invasive: the humble spinal tap or lumbar puncture (LP). This must however wait for least 12 hours after the onset of headache or blackout. This is the time it takes for the haemoglobin released by the red blood cells to be broken down into bilirubin and oxyhaemoglobin. These breakdown productsare readily identified in the biochemistry lab, and they also impart on the spinal fluid a yellow tinge called xanthochromia. The test may be positive up to 2 weeks after the bleed, but the sensitivity declines after this time. A positive xanthochromia test is startling and sets off an aggressive manhunt for an aneurysm-the culprit in most cases.
Many people with cerebral aneurysms have a family history of these, or of subarachnoid haemorrhage. Some others may have connective tissue diseases such as Ehler’s Danlos syndrome (EDS), adult polycystic kidney disease (APCKD), or the rare Loeys-Dietz syndrome. This family history is a window of opportunity to screen family members for aneurysms. The screening is usually carried out with a CT angiogram (CTA) or MR angiogram (MRA). People are often not born with aneurysms, but tend to develop them after the age of 20 years. Aneurysm surveillance therefore starts shortly after this age, and many experts advocate repeating the screening test every 5-7 years until the age of 70-80 years.
How are aneurysms treated? This will be the subject of a future blog post so watch this space!
Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is one of the most fearsome and recalcitrant scourges of neurology. We think we know a lot about it; after all it has been a quite a while since Alois Alzheimer described amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles in his index patient, Frau Deter. But the more neuroscientists study the disease, the murkier the field looks. For example, we are still not quite sure what the plaques and tangles really signify; for all we know, they may just be innocent bystanders, powerless by-products of a neurodegenerative process that defies understanding. We have accumulated an endlessly long list of AD risk factors, but we have singularly been unable to point a finger at the cause of AD.
This elusive void may however be a void no longer, if what superficially appears to be an outlandish theory turns out to be correct. And the theory is that AD is caused by infection! Just take a deep breathe, and allow yourself the space to make a giant leap of imagination. My attention was first drawn to the infective hypothesis of AD by a headline in Scientific American screaming Controversial New Push to Tie Microbes to Alzheimer’s Disease. The obvious key word here of course is controversial: is it possible that AD, this quintessential neurodegenerative disease, is…just another chronic infection?
To find the original source of the story, the trail of bread crumbs led to an editorial published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease in 2016, plainly titled Microbes and Alzheimer’s Disease. But this is not a run-of-the-mill editorial at all because it was written by 33 senior scientists and clinicians from a dozen countries. And their reason for an alternative theory of AD is simple: amyloid, the long-suspected culprit for decades, has failed to live up to its billing. They point out that amyloid exists harmlessly in the brains of many older people who never go on to develop dementia. They also cite studies which demonstrate that treating amyloid, by immunological means, does not improve the state of people suffering from AD. Amyloid, in other words, is not such a bad guy after all. But all the while we have been setting traps to ensnare it, the microbial villains have been running amok, having a field day.
But why should microbes succeed where amyloid, the ubiquitous protein, has woefully failed? The editorial gave 8 good reasons to argue that the infection theory is better than the amyloid hypothesis. One reason is that the brains of people with AD are often riddled with inflammation, a characteristic feature of infections. Another reason is the observation that AD can be transferred to primates when they are inoculated with the brain tissue of someone with AD.
And the culprit with the most number of index fingers pointing at it is herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV1). The editorial tells us that there have been about 100 publications, by different groups, demonstrating that HSV1 is a ‘major factor‘ in the causation of AD. Some of these studies have shown that people with AD have immunological signs of significant HSV infection in their blood. The editorial goes further to review the possible mechanisms by which HSV1 may cause AD; one of these is the possibility that the virus lowers the risk of AD in people who possess the APOE ɛ4 allele genetic liability.
Just when you are getting your head round the idea, the infection theory takes a very sinister turn. And this relates to the perversemodus operandi of the microbes. The authors tell us that the microbes first gain access to the brains of their victims when they (the victims) were much younger. Like sleeper cells in their ghoulish crypts, the microbes hibernate, biding their time until their victims get older, and their immunity declines. The microbes then awaken, and like malevolent zombies, set out to wreak gory mayhem and cataclysmic destruction. And they do this either by causing direct damage to the brain, or indirectly by inducing inflammation.
You can now descend form your giant imaginative leap and start to wonder: if AD is indeed caused by microbes, what can we do about it? ‘Tis time for some down-to-earth deep thinking.
When it comes to imaging the nervous system, nothing but an MRI will do for the fastidious neurologist. CT has its uses, such as in detecting acute intracranial bleeding, but it lacks the sophistication to detect or differentiate between less glaring abnormalities. It also comes with a hefty radiation dose. MRI on the other hand, relying on powerful magnetic fields, is a ‘cleaner’ technology.
MRI scans on their own are however often insufficient to sate the craving of the neurologist for precision. A plain MRI scan, for example, will not tell if a multiple sclerosis lesion is old or new, and it may fail to detect subtle but significant lesions such as low grade brain tumours or lymphoma. Many lesions on routine MRI scan are also ill-defined and non-specific, and could pass for abscesses, vasculitis, inflammation or just small vessel disease (wear and tear) changes.
To silence the niggling doubts, the neurologist often requests an MRI scan with contrast. The idea is to use a dye to separate the wheat from the chaff, the active lesions from the silent ones. This works because sinister lesions have a bad and dangerous habit of disrupting the blood brain barrier. All such insurgencies across the hallowed BBB is sacrilege, a sign that something serious is afoot, (or is it underfoot?). Contrast dyes, on the other hand, are adept at detecting these breaches, traversing them, and staining the sinister lesion in the process. This stain appears on the MRI scan as contrast enhancement. MRI with contrast is therefore invaluable, and a positive study is a call to arms.
Without any doubt, gadolinium is the favoured dye for contrast MRI scans. Gadolinium (Gd) is a lanthanide rare earth metal and it is one of the heavier elements of the periodic table with atomic number 64. It is named after the thrice-knighted Finnish chemist Johan Gadolin, who also discovered the first rare earth metal, yttrium.
We know a lot about some of the risks of injecting gadolinium into the body, such as its tendency to accumulate in people with kidney impairment (who cannot excrete it efficiently). We also know that it may cross the placenta to damage the developing baby. These are however hazards with simple and straight-forward solutions: avoid gadolinium in pregnancy, and don’t use it in people with poor renal function.
Much more challenging is the problem of gadolinium deposition in the brain of people with normal renal function. This is concerning because it is unpredictable, and because it has the potential to compromise brain structure and function. This blog has previously asked the question, “Is gadolinium toxic?“. The question remains unanswered, andregulatory agencies are still studying the data to provide guidance to doctors. Patient groups on the other hand have been up in arms, as one would expect, impatiently waiting for answers. What then is the state of play with gadolinium? Should neurologists and their patients really be worried? Below are 8 things we now know about gadolinium and its potential brain toxicity.
1. Gadolinium deposition is related to its insolubility at physiological pH
The toxic potential of gadolinium is thought to be the result of its insolubility at physiological pH. Furthermore, gadolinium competes against calcium, an element fundamental to cellular existence. This competition is obviously detrimental to the body.
2. The less stable gadolinium agents are the most toxic
There are two forms of gadolinium based contrast agents (GBCAs): the less stable linear GBCAs, and the more stable macrocyclic GBCAs. The linear GBCAs are more toxic, of which Gadodiamide (Omniscan)stands out. Other linear agents are gadobenate dimeglumine (MultiHance), gadopentetate dimeglumine (Magnevist), gadoversetamide (OptiMARK), gadoxetate (Eovist), and gadofosveset (Ablavar). The macrocyclic GBCAs, even though safer, are not entirely blameless. They include gadobuterol (Gadavist), gadoterate meglumine (Dotarem), and gadoteridol (ProHance). Therefore, choose your ‘gad’ wisely.
3. Gadolinium deposits in favoured sites in the brain
It is now established that gadolinium deposits in three main brain areas. The most favoured site is the dentate nucleus of the cerebellum. Other popular regions are the globus pallidus and the pulvinar. This deposition is, paradoxically, visible on plainT1-weighted MRI scans where it shows as high signal intensity.
4. The risk of deposition depends on the number of injections
The risk of gadolinium deposition in the brain is higher with multiple administrations. Stated another way, and to stretch this paragraph out a bit longer, the more frequently contrast injections are given, the higher the chances gadolinium will stick to the brain. The possible risk threshold is 4 injections of gadolinium. The fewer the better…obviously!
5. Gadolinium also deposits outside the brain
The favoured site of gadolinium deposition outside the brain is the kidney, where it causes nephrogenic systemic fibrosis, a scleroderma-like disorder. This however occurs mostly in people with renal impairment. Gadolinium also deposits in other organs outside the brain including bone, skin, and liver. (Strictly speaking, this item has nothing to do with the brain, but it helped to tot up the number to 8 in the title of this blog post, avoiding the use of the more sinister se7en).
6. Harm from gadolinium brain deposition has not been established
8. There are emerging ways to avoid gadolinium toxicity
The safest use of gadolinium is not to use it at all. There are some developments in the pipeline to achieve this, although probably not in the very near future. Such developments include manganese based contrast agents such as Mn-PyC3A. A less definitive option is to mitigate the effects of gadolinium by using chelating agents; two such potential agents are nanoparticlesand 3,4,3-LI(1,2-HOPO).
Why not get the snapshot view of gadolinium toxicity in the neurochecklist:
Some general neurologists get away with not having to think too much about multiple sclerosis (MS). This is because they have an ‘MSologist‘ at hand to refer all their patients with ‘demyelination‘. Many general neurologists however care for people with MS because they do not have a ‘fallback guy‘ to do the heavy lifting for them. This therefore makes it imperative for neurologists to keep up with everything about this often disabling and distressing disorder.
The management of MS is however very tricky, and it is challenging to get a grip of it all. This is partly because the clinical course is varied, and the diagnostic process tortuous. The patient first goes through an onerous retinue of tests which include an MRI, a lumbar puncture, evoked potentials, and a shedload of blood tests. This is all in a bid to secure the diagnosis and to exclude all possible MS mimics.
Then comes the head-scratching phase of determining if the patient actually fulfils the diagnostic criteria for MS, or if they just have clinically isolated syndrome (CIS) and radiologically isolated syndrome (RIS). To secure the diagnosis of MS, the neurologist turns to the McDonald criteria which stipulate dissemination in time and place of inflammatory events. As simple as this should be, this is no easy task at all. This is because, at different times, the criteria have meant different things to different people. The guidelines have also gone through several painful, and often confusing, iterations. Indeed the McDonald criteria have only recently been re-revised-to the delight of MSologists but the chagrin of the general neurologist!
Once the diagnosis of relapsing remitting MS (RRMS) is reasonably established, the patient is taken through a guided tour of the ever-expanding available treatment options. These are typically to prevent relapses, but more recently to prevent disease progression as well. People with mild to moderate MS are nudged towards interferons, glatiramer acetate, dimethylfumarate, or terifluonamide. Those with more aggressive disease, on the other hand, are offered a menu of fingolimod, natalizumab, or alemtuzumab. Other newer agents include daclizumab and cladribine. And, just stepping into the arena, there is ocrelizumab for primary progressive (PPMS). Whichever option is chosen, the course of treatment is long, and it is fraught with risks such as infections and immune suppression.
Once the bigger questions have been settled, the neurologist then braces for the ‘minor’ questions her enlightened patients will ask. The easier questions relate to the treatment of symptoms, and some of the most vexing concern the role of Vitamin D deficiency. Such questions include, ‘Is vitamin D deficiency a cause of MS?‘, ‘Do people who are vitamin D deficient experience a worseoutcome?‘, and ‘Should patients with MS be on Vitamin D supplementation?‘.
To attempt to resolve these questions I plunged into some of the literature on Vitamin D and MS. And this is like opening Pandora’s box. Here are some of the things I found.
It therefore appears that there is an association of vitamin D deficiency with MS, but it is far from certain that this is a causative relationship. One hypothesis is that vitamin D deficiency is the outcome, rather than the cause, of MS. The deficiency presumably results becuase the very active immune system in people with MS mops up the body’s Vitamin D. This so-calledreverse causation hypothesis asserts thatvitamin D deficiency is a consumptive vitaminopathy.
Even if Vitamin D deficiency doesn’t cause MS, the evidence suggests that it negatively influences the course of the disease.
What to do?
This is the million dollar question eloquently posed by a recent editorial in the journal Neurology titled Preventing multiple sclerosis: to (take) vitamin D or not to (take) vitamin D?The reasonable consensus is to encourage vitamin D replenishment to prevent MS, starting from preconception. It is also generally agreed that people with MS should be on vitamin D supplementation in the expectation that it will slow the disease activity.
A practical approach to Vitamin D replacement is the Barts MS team vitamin D supplementation recommendation. This is to start with 5,000IU/day vitamin D, and aim for a plasma level of 100-250 nmol/L. Depending on the level, the dose is then adjusted, up or down, to between 2-10,000IU/day. They also advise against giving calcium supplementation unless there is associated osteoporosis.
What is a general neurologist to do? To follow the prevailing trend, and hope it doesn’t change direction too soon!
Giant cell arteritis (GCA) is a nasty inflammatory disorder that affects the large arteries. Because it characteristically involves the temporal artery, this form of vasculitis is also referred to as temporal arteritis. It usually affects people over the age of 50 years and manifests with sudden onset headache, scalp pain, and a thick, tender temporal artery. GCA is often accompanied by polymyalgia rheumatica (PMR) , a painful condition of the joints and muscles. The active systemic inflammation in GCA is often detected by the erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR) or C-reactive protein (CRP) tests. These distinguishing features constitute most of the diagnostic criteria for GCA.
Most people with GCA however do not have all the ‘classical’ features of the disease. A high index of suspicion is therefore required to sniff out the duplicitous miscreant. It is particularly imperative to make the diagnosis as early as possible to prevent the dreaded complications of GCA, sudden blindness and stroke. The treatment of GCA, implemented according to established treatment guidelines, involves several months of oral steroids, drugs which cause immune suppression and a host of other side effects. It is therefore essential that the diagnosis of GCA is made correctly to avoid putting the patient on a long, risky, and unnecessary treatment.
What then is the value of the temporal artery biopsy in the diagnosis of GCA? This is the question posed by Bowling et al in their incisive paper titled Temporal artery biopsy in the diagnosis of giant cell arteritis: does the end justify the means?They reviewed 129 temporal artery biopsies and found that the clinical diagnosis of GCA was confirmed in only 13% of cases. Furthermore, the outcome of the biopsy rarely ever influenced the treatment; 87% of those with a normal biopsy result still continued their treatment. The miffed authors therefore rhetorically, and indignantly, asked: “can we justify invasive surgery to all patients on histological grounds when the results may not alter management?”
This is an entirely reasonable question especially because there are other more accurate and less invasive ways of establishing the diagnosis of GCA. These include:
But the answer to the authors’ rhetorical question is anyones guess. It is a sad tradition of medicine that studies such as these take ages to change practice. Indeed I predict the the temporal artery biopsy will sidestep this minor hurdle and simply continue its long and agonising reign. Despair!
Statins are famous, and their fame lies in their ability to bust cholesterol, the villain in many medical disorders such as heart attack (myocardial infarction) and stroke. Some may add that statins are infamous, and this is partly because of their side effects such as muscle pain. Love them or hate them, we can’t get away from statins…even as the debate rages about their benefits and downsides.
It is not surprising therefore that the statin debate will filter into neurology. The sticking point here however has nothing to do with cholesterol busting, but all to do with whether statins increase or reduce the risk of developing Parkinson’s disease (PD). Strange as it may seem, statins and PD have a long history. And a positive one generally, I hasten to add. There is a large body of evidence to suggest a protective effect of statins on PD as reflected in the following studies:
The authors of this paper set out to investigate ‘the controversy surrounding the role of statins in Parkinson’s disease’. In this retrospective analysis of over 2,000 people with PD, and a similar number of control subjects, theauthors found that statins significantly increased the risk of developing PD. This is clearly a conclusion looking for a fight!
I must admit I was totally unaware there was any controversy about statins and PD. I was therefore curious to find out what studies are out there fuelling it. Which other trials have bucked the trend and reported an increased risk of PD from statins? And where best to find the answers but in PubMed, the repository of all human knowledge! And I found that there were only a few studies that did not report a protective effect of statins on PD, and these studies concluded, quite reasonably, that they found no relationship between PD and statins. Here are a few of the studies:
These papers reporting the absence of evidence seem happy to engage in an amicable debate to resolve the question.
One study however stood out like a sore thumb because it positively reported a negative effect of statins on PD (try and work that out!). This 2015 study, also published in Movement Disorders, is titled Statins,plasmacholesterol, and risk of Parkinson’s disease: a prospective study. The paper concludes that “statin use may be associated with a higher PD risk, whereas higher total cholesterol may be associated with lower risk“. Not only are the authors arguing that statins are bad for PD, they are also suggesting that cholesterol is good! This is a paper that was itching for fisticuffs.
What is a jobbing neurologist to do? What are the millions of people on statins to do? Whilst awaiting further studies, I will say stay put. Go with the bulk of the evidence! And keep track of TheSimvastatin Trial, funded by TheCure Parkinson’s Trust. This trial is looking at the benefit of statins in slowing down PD. And surely, very soon, the science will lead to a resolution of the argument-all you need to do is keep track of everything PD in Neurochecklists.
Prophetic it seems, as I am here forced to revisit the topic because I came across a few recent interesting reports on the neurology of gluten.
Take this case report from Nutrients titled gluten psychosis: confirmation of a new clinical entity. The article comes with some good references that suggest it will do no harm to check anti-gliadin antibodies in people with unexplained psychosis. I do wonder how one case report would confirm an entity such as gluten psychosis, but there you are.
Gluten-induced visual impairment
The second item is another case report published in Journal of Neurology titled severe, persistent visual impairment associated with occipital calcification and coeliac disease. The subject of the case report has long-standing coeliac disease and visual impairment. Her brain MRI scan showed calcifications in the visual area, evidence the authors claim, of celiac disease causing brain calcifications …..and thereby causing the patients visual loss. Is it just a case of correlation rather than causation? But there you are.