Cerebral malaria

Handb Clin Neurol. 2013;114:91-102. doi: 10.1016/B978-0-444-53490-3.00006-6.


Malaria, the most significant parasitic disease of man, kills approximately one million people per year. Half of these deaths occur in those with cerebral malaria (CM). The World Health Organization (WHO) defines CM as an otherwise unexplained coma in a patient with malarial parasitemia. Worldwide, CM occurs primarily in African children and Asian adults, with the vast majority (greater than 90%) of cases occurring in children 5 years old or younger in sub-Saharan Africa. The pathophysiology of the disease is complex and involves infected erythrocyte sequestration, cerebral inflammation, and breakdown of the blood-brain barrier. A recently characterized malarial retinopathy is visual evidence of Plasmodium falciparum's pathophysiological processes occurring in the affected patient. Treatment consists of supportive care and antimalarial administration. Thus far, adjuvant therapies have not been shown to improve mortality rates or neurological outcomes in children with CM. For those who survive CM, residual neurological abnormalities are common. Epilepsy, cognitive impairment, behavioral disorders, and gross neurological deficits which include motor, sensory, and language impairments are frequent sequelae. Primary prevention strategies, including bed nets, vaccine development, and chemoprophylaxis, are in varied states of development and implementation. Continuing efforts to find successful primary prevention options and strategies to decrease neurological sequelae are needed.

Keywords: Pathophysiology; coma; intracranial pressure; retinopathy; sequelae.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Antimalarials / therapeutic use
  • Cognition Disorders / etiology
  • Coma / etiology
  • Epilepsy / etiology
  • Humans
  • Malaria, Cerebral / complications*
  • Malaria, Cerebral / drug therapy
  • Malaria, Cerebral / epidemiology*
  • Malaria, Cerebral / parasitology
  • Retinal Diseases / etiology


  • Antimalarials