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What Is Encephalopathy?

Encephalopathy is a general term describing a disease that affects the function or structure of your brain. There are many types of encephalopathy and brain disease. Some types are permanent and some are temporary. Some types are present from birth and never change, while others are acquired after birth and may get progressively worse.

What Are the Types and Causes of Encephalopathy?

The following are some major types of encephalopathy, along with their causes:



chronic traumatic encephalopathy

occurs when there are multiple traumas or injuries to the brain

glycine encephalopathy

a genetic condition where there are abnormally high levels of glycine (an amino acid) in the brain

Hashimoto’s encephalopathy

a rare effect of an autoimmune disease that attacks the thyroid gland  

hepatic encephalopathy

a result of liver disease

hypertensive encephalopathy

a result of very high blood pressure

hypoxic encephalopathy

when the brain does not get enough oxygen

Lyme encephalopathy

a result of Lyme disease. Infected ticks transmit this bacterial disease

static encephalopathy

permanent brain damage or dysfunction. A lack of oxygen to the brain, such as when a fetus is exposed to alcohol in the womb, is one of many causes of this type

toxic-metabolic encephalopathy

a result of infections, toxins, or organ failure

transmissible spongiform encephalopathies

a result of prion diseases. Prion proteins occur normally in the body. But they can also mutate, causing disease. Prion diseases include chronic wasting disease, fatal familial insomnia, kuru, and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease

uremic encephalopath

a result of kidney failure

Wernicke encephalopathy

a result of a vitamin B1 deficiency. Long-term alcoholism and poor food absorption can cause a vitamin B1 deficiency 

What Are the Symptoms of Encephalopathy?

Your symptoms will depend on the cause and severity of your encephalopathy.

Mental Changes

You may have difficulty focusing or suffer from memory loss. Also, you may have trouble with problem-solving skills.

Other people may notice symptoms in you before you do. A changing personality is one such symptom. For example, you may be more outgoing than you were before the encephalopathy. You may be more or less calm than you were before the disease.

You could also be lethargic and drowsy.

Neurological Changes

  • Possible neurological symptoms include:muscle weakness in one area, poor decision-making or concentration
  • involuntary twitching
  • trembling
  • difficulty speaking or swallowing
  • seizures

When Should I Seek Medical Help?

You should see a doctor promptly if you experience symptoms of encephalopathy. If you are already receiving treatment for brain disease, be aware of the following signs:

  • severe confusion
  • severe disorientation
  • coma

These can be signs of a medical urgency, and may mean that your condition is getting worse.

How Is Encephalopathy Diagnosed?

To diagnose encephalopathy, your doctor will ask you questions about your medical history and your symptoms. He or she will also perform a medical exam to check for mental and neurological symptoms.

If your doctor suspects that you have brain disease, he or she may conduct tests to determine the causes and severity of your disease. Tests may include:

  • blood tests to detect diseases, bacteria, viruses, toxins, or prion
  • spinal tap (taking a sample of your spinal fluid to look for diseases, bacteria, viruses, toxins, or prion)
  • computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan of your brain to detect abnormalities or damage
  • electroencephalogram (EEG) test to measure the electrical activity in your brain

How Is Encephalopathy Treated?

The treatment for encephalopathy varies according to the cause. Treatment may consist of medications to treat your symptoms and medications or surgery to treat the underlying cause. Your doctor may recommend nutritional supplements to slow the damage to your brain, and/or a special diet to treat underlying causes. In some cases of the disease, such as when the brain does not receive enough oxygen, you may slip into a coma. In severe cases like this, your doctor may put you on life support to keep you alive.

Is Encephalopathy Preventable?

Some types of encephalopathy—like hereditary types—are not preventable. However, some types are preventable.

In general, living a healthy lifestyle can reduce your risk factors for brain disease. Making the following changes can lessen the risk of many underlying causes of encephalopathy:

  • avoiding excess alcohol
  • reducing exposure to toxic substances like drugs
  • eating a healthy diet
  • seeing your doctor regularly

Long-Term Outlook

Your long-term outlook depends on the cause and severity of your encephalopathy. All types can be fatal if severe enough. Some types are always fatal.

According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, transmissible spongiform encephalopathy results in death within three months to a few years from the onset of the disease (NINDS).

Treatment for the cause of your brain disease may improve your symptoms or may get rid of the encephalopathy. Depending on the type of encephalopathy, you may or may not have permanent damage to your brain.

Content licensed from:

Written by: Rose Kivi
Published on: Aug 20, 2012
Medically reviewed on: Feb 06, 2017: Seunggu Han, MD

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your health care provider. Please consult a health care professional with any health concerns you may have.
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