OBJECTIVE: To compare the cognitive defects after acute acyclovir treated herpes simplex encephalitis with those after other types of acute encephalitis. METHODS: Seventy seven consecutive patients between 1985 and 1995 and 29 normal controls were studied. Of the 77 patients without concomitant neurological conditions, 17 had herpes simplex, one virus encephalitis (HSVE group), 27 had some other identified aetiology (non-HSVE group), and in 33 patients the cause was unknown. Acyclovir treatment was started less than four days after the first mental symptoms in 12 of 17 patients with HSVE. A thorough neuropsychological assessment was carried out about one month after the onset. RESULTS: The HSVE group had deficits in verbal memory, verbal-semantic functions, and visuoperceptual functions more often than the non-HSVE group. The risk for cognitive defects was twofold to four-fold in the patients with HSVE compared with the non-HSVE patients. Two (12%) of the patients with HSVE and 12 (44%) of the non-HSVE patients were cognitively intact. Six patients with HSVE (46%) and 17 (89%) non-HSVE patients later returned to work. The lesions on CT or MRI were bilateral only in one patient with HSVE. The defects in the three patients with adenovirus infection were severe and resembled the amnesia after HSVE. Cognitive impairment, not previously reported, was found in encephalitis after rotavirus infection and epidemic nephropathy. CONCLUSION: The recovery in the HSVE group was better than expected based on the medical literature. On the other hand there were surprisingly severe cognitive defects in encephalitis after other viruses. With early acyclovir treatment patients with the least severe HSVE were equivalent to those with non-HSV encephalitis with good outcome whereas those with the most severe non-HSV encephalitis were equivalent to those with HSVE with poor outcome.
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