Bilirubin Encephalopathy

Curr Neurol Neurosci Rep. 2022 Jul;22(7):343-353. doi: 10.1007/s11910-022-01204-8. Epub 2022 May 19.


Purpose of review: Hyperbilirubinemia is commonly seen in neonates. Though hyperbilirubinemia is typically asymptomatic, severe elevation of bilirubin levels can lead to acute bilirubin encephalopathy and progress to kernicterus spectrum disorder, a chronic condition characterized by hearing loss, extrapyramidal dysfunction, ophthalmoplegia, and enamel hypoplasia. Epidemiological data show that the implementation of universal pre-discharge bilirubin screening programs has reduced the rates of hyperbilirubinemia-associated complications. However, acute bilirubin encephalopathy and kernicterus spectrum disorder are still particularly common in low- and middle-income countries.

Recent findings: The understanding of the genetic and biochemical processes that increase the susceptibility of defined anatomical areas of the central nervous system to the deleterious effects of bilirubin may facilitate the development of effective treatments for acute bilirubin encephalopathy and kernicterus spectrum disorder. Scoring systems are available for the diagnosis and severity grading of these conditions. The treatment of hyperbilirubinemia in newborns relies on the use of phototherapy and exchange transfusion. However, novel therapeutic options including deep brain stimulation, brain-computer interface, and stem cell transplantation may alleviate the heavy disease burden associated with kernicterus spectrum disorder. Despite improved screening and treatment options, the prevalence of acute bilirubin encephalopathy and kernicterus spectrum disorder remains elevated in low- and middle-income countries. The continued presence and associated long-term disability of these conditions warrant further research to improve their prevention and management.

Keywords: Bilirubin encephalopathy; Bilirubin-induced neurotoxicity; Hyperbilirubinemia; Kernicterus spectrum disorder.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Bilirubin
  • Brain Diseases*
  • Humans
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Kernicterus* / diagnosis
  • Kernicterus* / epidemiology
  • Kernicterus* / etiology
  • Phototherapy / adverse effects


  • Bilirubin