The tick-borne encephalitis (TBE) virus gives rise to epidemic encephalitis. Mild forms usually manifest as influenza-like episodes or are clinically silent. MRI is usually normal in TBE. We describe severe TBE in a patient who presented with fever and altered mental status after a tick bite and a specific antibody response to TBE. MRI revealed pronounced signal abnormalities in the basal ganglia and thalamus, without contrast enhancement. These findings coincide well with neuropathological studies of severe nerve cell degeneration with inflammatory cell infiltrates, neuronophagia and reactive astrocytosis in the deep grey matter. We review the literature and discuss the relevant differential diagnosis.