Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) Encephalitis Is a Cytokine Release Syndrome: Evidences From Cerebrospinal Fluid Analyses

Clin Infect Dis. 2021 Nov 2;73(9):e3019-e3026. doi: 10.1093/cid/ciaa1933.


Background: Recent findings indicated that severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2)-related neurological manifestations involve cytokine release syndrome along with endothelial activation, blood brain barrier dysfunction, and immune-mediated mechanisms. Very few studies have fully investigated the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) correlates of SARS-CoV-2 encephalitis.

Methods: Patients with polymerase chain reaction (PCR)-confirmed SARS-CoV-2 infection and encephalitis (COV-Enc), encephalitis without SARS-CoV-2 infection (ENC), and healthy controls (HC) underwent an extended panel of CSF neuronal (neurofilament light chain [NfL], T-tau), glial (glial fibrillary acidic protein [GFAP], soluble triggering receptor expressed on myeloid cells 2 [sTREM2], chitinase-3-like protein 1 [YKL-40]) and inflammatory biomarkers (interleukin [IL]-1β, IL-6, Il-8, tumor necrosis factor [TNF] α, CXCL-13, and β2-microglobulin).

Results: Thirteen COV-Enc, 21 ENC, and 18 HC entered the study. In COV-Enc cases, CSF was negative for SARS-CoV-2 real-time PCR but exhibited increased IL-8 levels independently from presence of pleocytosis/hyperproteinorracchia. COV-Enc patients showed increased IL-6, TNF- α, and β2-microglobulin and glial markers (GFAP, sTREM2, YKL-40) levels similar to ENC but normal CXCL13 levels. Neuronal markers NfL and T-tau were abnormal only in severe cases.

Conclusions: SARS-CoV-2-related encephalitis were associated with prominent glial activation and neuroinflammatory markers, whereas neuronal markers were increased in severe cases only. The pattern of CSF alterations suggested a cytokine-release syndrome as the main inflammatory mechanism of SARS-CoV-2-related encephalitis.

Keywords: COVID-19; ICANS; SARS-CoV-2; cytokine storm syndrome; encephalitis.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • COVID-19*
  • Cytokine Release Syndrome
  • Encephalitis*
  • Glial Fibrillary Acidic Protein
  • Humans
  • SARS-CoV-2


  • Glial Fibrillary Acidic Protein