diagnosing brain and spinal cord infections

Researchers have developed a new sequencing method to help diagnose acute brain and spinal cord infections.

Infections that affect the brain and spinal cord, such as meningitis and encephalitis, can lead to inflammation. There are many possible causes of these diseases, including bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites. Symptoms are widely varied and can include sudden fever, headache, vomiting, and seizures. In extreme cases, these infections can cause brain damage, stroke, or even death.

Diagnosing brain and spinal cord infections is challenging

In most cases, people with mild brain and spinal cord infections can make a full recovery, although the process may be slow. The existing methods to diagnose brain and spinal cord infections rely heavily y on the physician’s ordering of tests, based on a patient’s history, clinical presentation, and imaging findings, followed by serial laboratory testing.

A single test to identify inflammatory neurological conditions

In a new paper published in The New England Journal of Medicine, a group of researchers and clinicians at the University of California developed a new clinical metagenomic next-generation sequencing method that can identify a broad range of pathogens in a single test. This powerful assay is capable of comparing unknown genetic material from a patient sample against many other known pathogen genomes.

To study the effectiveness of this breakthrough innovation in detecting patients with suspected meningitis or encephalitis, the researchers conducted a clinical trial at multiple hospitals, mostly located in California.

Out of 58 total diagnoses, the new sequencing method could identify more than 20% that were not able to be detected by standard clinical testing. This study clearly showed how sequencing technology can generate positive clinical impacts on patients with inflammatory neurological conditions. The research team is planning further preclinical studies to determine the best timing for diagnoses.

Written by Man-tik Choy, Ph.D

Reference: Wilson, M.R. et al. Clinical Metagenomic Sequencing for Diagnosis of Meningitis and Encephalitis. The New England Journal of Medicine, 380(24):2327-2340. DOI: 10.1056/NEJMoa1803396.

Image by Belova59 from Pixabay

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