Supporting the differential diagnosis of connective tissue diseases with neurological involvement by blood and cerebrospinal fluid flow cytometry

J Neuroinflammation. 2023 Feb 23;20(1):46. doi: 10.1186/s12974-023-02733-w.


Objective: Neurological manifestations of autoimmune connective tissue diseases (CTD) are poorly understood and difficult to diagnose. We here aimed to address this shortcoming by studying immune cell compositions in CTD patients with and without neurological manifestation.

Methods: Using flow cytometry, we retrospectively investigated paired cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) and blood samples of 28 CTD patients without neurological manifestation, 38 CTD patients with neurological manifestation (N-CTD), 38 non-inflammatory controls, and 38 multiple sclerosis (MS) patients, a paradigmatic primary neuroinflammatory disease.

Results: We detected an expansion of plasma cells in the blood of both N-CTD and CTD compared to non-inflammatory controls and MS. Blood plasma cells alone distinguished the clinically similar entities N-CTD and MS with high discriminatory performance (AUC: 0.81). Classical blood monocytes indicated higher disease activity in systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) patients. Surprisingly, immune cells in the CSF did not differ significantly between N-CTD and CTD, while CD4+ T cells and the CD4+/CD8+ ratio were elevated in the blood of N-CTD compared to CTD. Several B cell-associated parameters partially overlapped in the CSF in MS and N-CTD. We built a machine learning model that distinguished N-CTD from MS with high discriminatory power using either blood or CSF.

Conclusion: We here find that blood flow cytometry alone surprisingly suffices to distinguish CTD with neurological manifestations from clinically similar entities, suggesting that a rapid blood test could support clinicians in the differential diagnosis of N-CTD.

Keywords: Cerebrospinal fluid; Connective tissue disease; Flow cytometry; Systemic lupus erythematosus.

MeSH terms

  • Connective Tissue Diseases* / diagnosis
  • Diagnosis, Differential
  • Flow Cytometry
  • Humans
  • Lupus Erythematosus, Systemic*
  • Multiple Sclerosis*
  • Retrospective Studies