Viral and Prion Infections of the Central Nervous System: Radiologic-Pathologic Correlation: From the Radiologic Pathology Archives.Radiographics. 2017 Jan-Feb; 37(1):199-233.R
Viral infections of the central nervous system (CNS) range in clinical severity, with the most severe proving fatal within a matter of days. Some of the more than 100 different viruses known to affect the brain and spinal cord are neurotropic with a predilection for producing CNS infection. The host response to viral infection of the CNS is responsible for the pathophysiology and imaging findings seen in affected patients. Viral CNS infections can take the form of meningitis, encephalitis, encephalomyelitis, or, when involving the spinal cord and nerve roots, encephalomyeloradiculitis. In 1982, an infectious particle termed a prion that lacked nucleic acid and therefore was not a virus was reported to produce the fatal neurodegenerative disease Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease and related disorders. These prion diseases produce characteristic neuroimaging findings that are distinct from those seen in most viral infections. The clinical and imaging findings associated with viral CNS infection are often nonspecific, with microbiologic analysis of cerebrospinal fluid the most useful single test allowing for diagnosis of a specific viral infection. This review details the spectrum of viral CNS infections and uses case material from the archives of the American Institute for Radiologic Pathology, with a focus on the specific clinical characteristics and magnetic resonance imaging features seen in these infections. Where possible, the imaging features that allow distinction of these infections from other CNS inflammatory conditions are highlighted.