MRI and CT appearances in metabolic encephalopathies due to systemic diseases in adults

Clin Radiol. 2013 Jun;68(6):545-54. doi: 10.1016/j.crad.2012.05.021. Epub 2012 Nov 9.


The term encephalopathy refers to a clinical scenario of diffuse brain dysfunction, commonly due to a systemic, metabolic, or toxic derangement. Often the clinical evaluation is unsatisfactory in this scenario and imaging plays an important role in the diagnosis, assessment of treatment response, and prognostication of the disorder. Hence, it is important for radiologists to be familiar with the imaging features of some relatively frequently acquired metabolic encephalopathies encountered in the hospital setting. This study reviews the computed tomography (CT) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) features of a number of metabolic encephalopathies that occur as part of systemic diseases in adults. The following conditions are covered in this review: hypoglycaemic encephalopathy, hypoxic ischaemic encephalopathy, non-ketotic hyperglycaemia, hepatic encephalopathy, uraemic encephalopathy, hyperammonaemic encephalopathy, and posterior reversible encephalopathy syndrome. MRI is the imaging method of choice in evaluating these conditions. Due to their high metabolic activity, bilateral basal ganglia changes are evident in the majority of cases. Concurrent imaging abnormalities in other parts of the central nervous system often provide useful diagnostic information about the likely underlying cause of the encephalopathy. Besides this, abnormal signal intensity and diffusion restriction patterns on MRI and MR spectroscopy features may provide important clues as to the diagnosis and guide further management. Frequently, the diagnosis is not straightforward and typical imaging features require correlation with clinical and laboratory data for accurate assessment.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Brain / diagnostic imaging
  • Brain / pathology
  • Brain Diseases, Metabolic / diagnosis*
  • Brain Diseases, Metabolic / diagnostic imaging
  • Brain Diseases, Metabolic / pathology
  • Hepatic Encephalopathy / diagnosis
  • Hepatic Encephalopathy / diagnostic imaging
  • Hepatic Encephalopathy / pathology
  • Humans
  • Hyperglycemia / diagnosis
  • Hyperglycemia / diagnostic imaging
  • Hyperglycemia / pathology
  • Hypoglycemia / diagnosis
  • Hypoglycemia / diagnostic imaging
  • Hypoglycemia / pathology
  • Hypoxia-Ischemia, Brain / diagnosis
  • Hypoxia-Ischemia, Brain / diagnostic imaging
  • Hypoxia-Ischemia, Brain / pathology
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging*
  • Posterior Leukoencephalopathy Syndrome / diagnosis
  • Posterior Leukoencephalopathy Syndrome / diagnostic imaging
  • Posterior Leukoencephalopathy Syndrome / pathology
  • Tomography, X-Ray Computed*
  • Wernicke Encephalopathy / diagnosis
  • Wernicke Encephalopathy / diagnostic imaging
  • Wernicke Encephalopathy / pathology