Effective use of polymerase chain reaction for diagnosis of central nervous system infections

Clin Infect Dis. 1999 Oct;29(4):803-6. doi: 10.1086/520439.


Polymerase chain reaction (PCR)-based testing of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) specimens has become standard for confirmatory diagnosis of central nervous system (CNS) infections; however, these tests increase health care costs. We reviewed 3-year data from 974 consecutive CSF specimens submitted for detection of seven pathogens by PCR. In 1997, 237 of 367 specimens (64.6%) were submitted for multiple tests, compared with 203 of 522 (38.9%) in 1996 and 18 of 85 (21.2%) in 1995. In each year the arrival of new house officers coincided with a peak in multiple testing. Among 732 specimens submitted for herpesvirus detection, results were positive for 24 (4.6%) of 523 specimens with increased leukocyte counts or protein levels. None of 209 specimens with normal leukocyte and protein levels were positive for herpesviruses. None of 471 CSF specimens submitted for Borrelia burgdorferi detection were PCR-positive. Use of protein and leukocytes to screen CSF specimens before employing PCR for herpesvirus detection would save almost one-third of costs without reducing sensitivity.

MeSH terms

  • Central Nervous System Infections / cerebrospinal fluid
  • Central Nervous System Infections / diagnosis*
  • Herpesviridae Infections / diagnosis
  • Humans
  • Leukocyte Count
  • Lyme Disease / diagnosis
  • Polymerase Chain Reaction*