Central Nervous System Systemic Lupus Erythematosus: Pathophysiologic, Clinical, and Imaging Features

Radiographics. 2022 Jan-Feb;42(1):212-232. doi: 10.1148/rg.210045.


Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) is a systemic autoimmune disease characterized by multiple immunologic abnormalities and has the potential to involve the central nervous system (CNS). The prevalence of SLE seems to be growing, possibly because of earlier diagnosis and improved survival; however, the associated mortality is still high. The mortality is associated with disease-related risk factors such as lupus disease activity, young age, and organ damage or with antiphospholipid syndrome (APS). Neuropsychiatric SLE (NPSLE), which is caused by SLE-related CNS involvement, comprises a broad range of neurologic and psychiatric manifestations with varying severity, which can make this disease indistinguishable from other conditions that are unrelated to SLE. No unifying pathophysiology has been found in the etiology of NPSLE, suggesting that this condition has multiple contributors such as various immune effectors and the brain-intrinsic neuroimmune interfaces that are breached by the immune effectors. The postulated neuroimmune interfaces include the blood-brain barrier, blood-cerebrospinal fluid barrier, meningeal barrier, and glymphatic system. On the basis of the immunologic, pathologic, and imaging features of NPSLE, the underlying pathophysiology can be classified as vasculitis and vasculopathy, APS, demyelinating syndrome, or autoimmune antibody-mediated encephalitis. Each pathophysiology has different imaging characteristics, although the imaging and pathophysiologic features may overlap. Moreover, there are complications due to the immunocompromised status caused by SLE per se or by SLE treatment. Radiologists and clinicians should become familiar with the underlying mechanisms, radiologic findings, and complications of NPSLE, as this information may aid in the diagnosis and treatment of NPSLE. Online supplemental material is available for this article. ©RSNA, 2022.

MeSH terms

  • Brain
  • Central Nervous System / pathology
  • Humans
  • Lupus Erythematosus, Systemic* / diagnostic imaging
  • Lupus Vasculitis, Central Nervous System* / complications
  • Lupus Vasculitis, Central Nervous System* / diagnostic imaging
  • Prevalence