Encephalopathy is a term that describes any disorder or disease that affects the brain. It can have many different causes, symptoms and outcomes. In this article, we will explain what encephalopathy is, what are the common types and causes of encephalopathy, how it is diagnosed and treated, and what are the possible complications and prevention strategies.
What is Encephalopathy?
Encephalopathy is a general term that refers to brain disease, damage, or malfunction. The brain is a complex organ that controls many functions of the body and mind, such as thinking, memory, emotion, movement, sensation, breathing, heartbeat and more. When something goes wrong with the brain, it can affect one or more of these functions and cause various symptoms.
The main symptom of encephalopathy is an altered mental state. This means that the person may experience changes in their cognition (thinking, reasoning, memory), behavior (personality, mood, impulse), consciousness (awareness, alertness, responsiveness) or perception (vision, hearing, smell). Depending on the type and severity of encephalopathy, these changes can be mild or severe, temporary or permanent.
Encephalopathy is not a single disease but a group of disorders with several causes. Some of the common causes of encephalopathy are:
Infection: Bacteria, viruses, fungi or parasites can infect the brain or other parts of the body and cause inflammation or damage to the brain tissue. Examples of infectious encephalopathies are meningitis, encephalitis, sepsis and prion diseases.
Metabolic or mitochondrial dysfunction: The brain needs a constant supply of oxygen and glucose (sugar) to function properly. When there is a problem with the metabolism (the process of converting food into energy) or the mitochondria (the organelles that produce energy in the cells), the brain may not get enough fuel or produce enough waste products. This can lead to brain dysfunction or damage. Examples of metabolic or mitochondrial encephalopathies are diabetic ketoacidosis, hypoglycemia, hepatic encephalopathy and Leigh syndrome.
Brain tumor or increased pressure in the skull: A tumor (abnormal growth of cells) or a hematoma (collection of blood) can compress or invade the brain tissue and affect its function. Increased pressure in the skull (intracranial pressure) can also result from head injury, stroke, hydrocephalus or infection and cause brain damage. Examples of encephalopathies due to brain tumor or increased pressure are brain cancer, subdural hematoma and pseudotumor cerebri.
Prolonged exposure to toxic elements: Some substances can be harmful to the brain if they accumulate in high levels in the body or cross the blood-brain barrier (a protective layer that prevents most substances from entering the brain). These substances can include solvents, drugs, radiation, paints, industrial chemicals and some metals. Examples of toxic encephalopathies are alcohol-related dementia, lead poisoning and carbon monoxide poisoning.
Chronic progressive trauma: Repeated head injuries can cause cumulative damage to the brain tissue and lead to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). CTE is a degenerative disease that affects mainly athletes who play contact sports such as football or boxing. It causes cognitive impairment, behavioral changes and dementia.
Poor nutrition: The brain needs various nutrients to function properly. A deficiency or excess of certain vitamins, minerals or amino acids can affect the brain chemistry and cause neurological symptoms. Examples of nutritional encephalopathies are Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome (due to thiamine deficiency), beriberi (due to vitamin B1 deficiency) and maple syrup urine disease (due to branched-chain amino acid metabolism disorder).
Lack of oxygen or blood flow to the brain: The brain cells can die if they do not receive enough oxygen or blood for a prolonged period of time. This can happen due to cardiac arrest (heart stoppage), drowning, suffocation