Delayed spongiform leukoencephalopathy after heroin abuse

Acta Neuropathol. 1997 Jul;94(1):87-90. doi: 10.1007/s004010050676.


Here we report the clinical and pathological findings in a 30-year-old drug addict in whom an intravenous injection of heroin led to reversible coma with respiratory depression and heart failure. On regaining consciousness, the patient was found to have rhabdomyolysis with renal failure requiring dialysis and peripheral neuropathy. Three weeks later his neurological condition suddenly deteriorated and delayed encephalopathy developed, leading to death 20 days later. The neuropathological study of the brain disclosed pale, spongy myelin with diffuse reactive astrogliosis and microglial proliferation, without hypoxic necrotic lesions. The cerebral and cerebellar cortices were unchanged. The absence of typical hypoxic lesions and the presence of spongiosis with massive astrocytosis distinguished this case from the previously reported cases of delayed leukoencephalopathy following severe hypoxia. An immunocytochemical study designed to exclude an underlying alteration of the metabolic oxidative pathway detected normal expression of the respiratory chain complexes IV, III and V. Despite the absence of an oxidative chain alteration in our patient, we cannot exclude the possibility that an individual predisposition played a pathogenetic role in this delayed leukoencephalopathy.

Publication types

  • Case Reports

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Brain Diseases / chemically induced*
  • Brain Diseases / pathology*
  • Demyelinating Diseases / chemically induced
  • Demyelinating Diseases / pathology
  • Heroin*
  • Humans
  • Immunohistochemistry
  • Injections, Intravenous
  • Male
  • Rhabdomyolysis / chemically induced
  • Substance Abuse, Intravenous / pathology*


  • Heroin