The neurological complications of sepsis

Ann Neurol. 1993 Jan;33(1):94-100. doi: 10.1002/ana.410330115.


Encephalopathy and polyneuropathy occur in 70% of septic patients. The encephalopathy is diffuse, appears early, is often severe, but reverses quickly with successful treatment of the sepsis. The electroencephalogram is a sensitive indicator of the incidence and severity of the encephalopathy, but computed tomograms of the brain and cerebrospinal fluid findings are unremarkable. Critical-illness polyneuropathy develops later and in association with multiple-organ failure. Recovery is more gradual. Difficulty in weaning from the ventilator is an important early manifestation. Electromyography should be routinely performed to establish the diagnosis. The polyneuropathy is a primary axonal degeneration, predominantly of distal motor fibers. A persistent deficit may eventuate in severe cases. Whether muscle is affected as consistently as brain and peripheral nerve, and by the same process, has not been determined. Medications used in critical care units, notably sedatives and neuromuscular blocking agents, often confuse the clinical picture. The neurological pathophysiology is unknown but current evidence suggests that nervous system dysfunction arises through the same mechanisms as for systemic organs in the septic syndrome.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Brain Diseases / etiology
  • Humans
  • Infections / complications*
  • Muscular Diseases / etiology
  • Nervous System Diseases / etiology*
  • Nervous System Diseases / physiopathology
  • Neuromuscular Diseases / etiology
  • Neuromuscular Junction / physiopathology
  • Synaptic Transmission