Posterior Leukoencephalopathy Syndrome

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PatientPlus articles are written by UK doctors and are based on research evidence, UK and European Guidelines. They are designed for health professionals to use, so you may find the language more technical than the condition leaflets.

Synonym: posterior reversible encephalopathy syndrome (PRES)

Reversible posterior leukoencephalopathy syndrome presents with rapid onset of symptoms including headache, seizures, altered consciousness and visual disturbance. It is often but not always associated with acute hypertension. If promptly recognised and treated, the clinical syndrome usually resolves within a week and the changes seen in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) resolve over days to weeks.[1]

The underlying pathogenesis is not fully understood.[2] The pathological mechanism is thought to relate either to hypertension and hyperperfusion or to vasculopathy with resulting hypoperfusion.[3] 

It is rare. However, with increasing awareness and increasing use of MRI, the diagnosis may be made more frequently in the future.[4] 

Most of the literature is single or a few cases. It usually presents in adults but has been reported in children.[5]

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Chronic kidney disease and acute kidney injury are both often present and there is a strong association with conditions that co-exist in patients with renal disease, such as hypertension, vascular and autoimmune diseases, exposure to immunosuppressive drugs, and organ transplantation.[1] Underlying risk factors/precipitants may include the following:

  • Severe hypertension, pre-eclampsia or renal disease, leading to failed auto-regulation, hyperperfusion and endothelial injury/vasogenic oedema. Rapidly developing, fluctuating or intermittent hypertension is a particular risk. Vasoconstriction and hypoperfusion leads to brain ischaemia and subsequent vasogenic oedema. Recent evidence suggests that the latter is more likely.
  • A wide range of drugs but most commonly with immunosuppressants and chemotherapy.[6]
  • Infection with sepsis and shock, which are being recognised more often as other aetiological factors.[7]
  • Autoimmune disease has also been seen.[8]
  • It can also occur after carotid endarterectomy when the carotid baroreceptors fail.
  • In one series of seven patients, six were found to have an underlying bleeding diathesis or coagulopathy.[9]

Despite the name 'leukoencephalopathy', lesions can occur in both white and grey areas. It is also increasingly recognised that it can affect the anterior cerebrum, as well as the anterior and posterior cortex, brainstem, cerebellum or even the spinal cord.[10]

Clinical signs and symptoms are nonspecific and may be acute or subacute:

  • Headaches.
  • Altered mental state, lethargy and somnolence, possibly progressing to confusion and coma.
  • Convulsions - status epilepticus has been reported.[11]
  • Blurred vision, hemianopia, visual neglect, hallucinations, cortical visual impairment.
  • Fundoscopy often shows papilloedema, haemorrhages and exudates.
  • Blood pressure is usually high.

The clinical symptoms are not enough to establish the diagnosis but MRI is often characteristic and essential to the diagnosis.

In the acute setting, CT imaging allows for rapid assessment. It can also exclude major cerebral haemorrhage and space-occupying lesions. Although not 100% sensitive, CT may also demonstrate venous sinus thrombosis or arterial ischaemia or thrombosis. However, CT imaging may be normal and should not necessarily provide reassurance.

Typical MRI findings are bilateral white-matter abnormalities in vascular watershed areas in the posterior regions of both cerebral hemispheres, affecting mostly the occipital and parietal lobes. Using standard MRI, it may not be easy to differentiate from other acute vascular diseases but venous sinus thrombosis can be rapidly diagnosed by CT or MR venography.

Angiography can identify vessel thrombosis, dissection, or vasculitis. Electroencephalography  (EEG) can be used to identify subclinical seizures and can point to other causes of encephalopathy. Lumbar puncture can diagnose infection or subarachnoid haemorrhage but may be normal early in the illness or after antibiotic treatment.

The presentation is often nonspecific and it can easily be mistaken for other conditions.[1] Possible differential diagnoses include:

This list is far from exhaustive but high blood pressure is a common theme.

The following drugs are just some that have been implicated:

  • Ciclosporin A
  • Vincristine
  • Tacrolimus
  • Cisplatin
  • Interferon alfa
  • Antiretroviral therapy
  • Erythropoietin

Rapid withdrawal of the trigger speeds recovery and reduces the risk of complications - eg, aggressive blood pressure control, withdrawal of the offending drug, or delivery in eclampsia. Antiepileptic drugs should be used to treat seizures; anaesthesia and ventilation should be used for generalised status epilepticus and to protect the airway in comatose patients.

  • If it is caught in time it is reversible but, if infarction has occurred, there will be irreversible damage.
  • There are case reports of patients experiencing brain herniation and death.
  • Delay in diagnosis gives a worse prognosis.
  • Recurrence can occur but is unusual.

Further reading & references

  1. Hobson EV, Craven I, Blank SC; Posterior reversible encephalopathy syndrome: a truly treatable neurologic illness. Perit Dial Int. 2012 Nov-Dec;32(6):590-4. doi: 10.3747/pdi.2012.00152.
  2. Lamy C, Oppenheim C, Mas JL; Posterior reversible encephalopathy syndrome. Handb Clin Neurol. 2014;121:1687-701. doi: 10.1016/B978-0-7020-4088-7.00109-7.
  3. Stevens CJ, Heran MK; The many faces of posterior reversible encephalopathy syndrome. Br J Radiol. 2012 Dec;85(1020):1566-75. doi: 10.1259/bjr/25273221.
  4. Thompson RJ, Sharp B, Pothof J, et al; Posterior reversible encephalopathy syndrome in the emergency department: case series and literature review. West J Emerg Med. 2015 Jan;16(1):5-10. doi: 10.5811/westjem.2014.12.24126. Epub 2015 Jan 5.
  5. Sanjay KM, Partha PC; The posterior reversible encephalopathy syndrome. Indian J Pediatr. 2008 Sep;75(9):953-5. Epub 2008 Sep 22.
  6. Marinella MA, Markert RJ; Reversible posterior leukoencephalopathy syndrome associated with anticancer drugs. Intern Med J. 2008 Nov 3.
  7. Bartynski WS, Boardman JF, Zeigler ZR, et al; Posterior reversible encephalopathy syndrome in infection, sepsis, and shock. AJNR Am J Neuroradiol. 2006 Nov-Dec;27(10):2179-90.
  8. Fugate JE, Claassen DO, Cloft HJ, et al; Posterior reversible encephalopathy syndrome: associated clinical and radiologic findings. Mayo Clin Proc. 2010 May;85(5):427-32.
  9. Aranas RM, Prabhakaran S, Lee VH; Posterior Reversible Encephalopathy Syndrome Associated with Hemorrhage. Neurocrit Care. 2009 Feb 19.
  10. Pula JH, Eggenberger E; Posterior reversible encephalopathy syndrome. Curr Opin Ophthalmol. 2008 Nov;19(6):479-84.
  11. Rossi R, Saddi MV, Ticca A, et al; Partial status epilepticus related to independent occipital foci in posterior reversible encephalopathy syndrome (PRES). Neurol Sci. 2008 Dec;29(6):455-8. Epub 2008 Dec 6.

Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. EMIS has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.

Original Author:
Dr Laurence Knott
Current Version:
Peer Reviewer:
Dr Adrian Bonsall
Document ID:
2638 (v23)
Last Checked:
Next Review:

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