On this page

What is encephalopathy?

Encephalopathy is a term for any disease of the brain that alters brain function or structure. It may be caused by:

  • An infection
  • Metabolic or mitochondrial dysfunction
  • Brain tumor or increased pressure in the skull
  • Prolonged exposure to toxic elements (including solvents, drugs, radiation, paints, industrial chemicals, and certain metals)
  • Chronic progressive trauma
  • Poor nutrition
  • Lack of oxygen or blood flow to the brain

The hallmark of encephalopathy is an altered mental state. Common neurological symptoms are:

  • Progressive loss of memory and cognitive ability
  • Subtle personality changes
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Lethargy
  • Progressive loss of consciousness

Other neurological symptoms may include

  • Myoclonus (involuntary twitching of a muscle or group of muscles)
  • Nystagmus (rapid, involuntary eye movement)
  • Tremor
  • Muscle atrophy and weakness
  • Dementia
  • Seizures
  • Loss of ability to swallow or speak

Diagnostic tests such as blood tests, spinal fluid examination, imaging studies, electroencephalograms, and similar studies may be used to differentiate the various causes of encephalopathy.

Treatment is symptomatic and varies, according to the type and severity of the encephalopathy. Your physician can provide specific instructions for proper care and treatment. Anticonvulsants may be prescribed to reduce or stop any seizures. Changes to diet and nutritional supplements may help some people with the disease. In severe cases, dialysis or organ replacement surgery may be needed.

Treating the underlying cause of the disorder may improve symptoms. However, the encephalopathy may cause permanent structural changes and irreversible damage to the brain. Some encephalopathies can be fatal.

Learn About Clinical Trials
Clinical trials are studies that allow us to learn more about disorders and improve care. They can help connect patients with new and upcoming treatment options.

How can I or my loved one help improve care for people with encephalopathy?

Consider participating in a clinical trial so clinicians and scientists can learn more about encephalopathy and related disorders. Clinical research uses human volunteers to help researchers learn more about a disorder and perhaps find better ways to safely detect, treat, or prevent disease.

All types of volunteers are needed—those who are healthy or may have an illness or disease—of all different ages, sexes, races, and ethnicities to ensure that study results apply to as many people as possible, and that treatments will be safe and effective for everyone who will use them.

For information about participating in clinical research visit NIH Clinical Research Trials and You. Learn about clinical trials currently looking for people with encephalopathy at Clinicaltrials.gov.

Where can I find more information about encephalopathy?

Information may be available from the following organization:

Hope for HIE - Hypoxic Ischemic Encephalopathy
Phone: 248-574-8099