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Longitudinal analysis of regional brain changes in anti-NMDAR encephalitis: a case report.



Anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis is an immune-mediated disorder characterized by antibodies against the GluN1 subunit of the NMDA receptor that is increasingly recognized as a treatable cause of childhood epileptic encephalopathy. In adults, the disorder has been associated with reversible changes in brain volume over the course of treatment and recovery, but in children, little is known about its time course and associated imaging manifestations.

Case presentation

A previously healthy 20-month-old boy presented with first-time unprovoked seizures, dysautonomia, and dyskinesia. Paraneoplastic workup was negative, but CSF was positive for anti-NMDAR antibodies. The patient's clinical condition waxed and waned over a 14-month course of treatment with first- and second-line immunotherapies (including steroids, IVIG, rituximab, and cyclophosphamide). Serial brain MRIs scans obtained at 5 time points spanning this same period showed no abnormal signal or enhancement but were remarkable for cycles of reversible regional cortical volume loss. All scans included identical 1-mm resolution 3D T1-weighted sequences obtained on the same 3 T scanner. Using a novel longitudinal processing stream in FreeSurfer6 (Reuter M, et. al, Neuroimage 61:1402-18, 2012) we quantified the rate of change in cortical volume at each vertex (% volume change per month) between consecutive scans and correlated these changes with the time course of the patient's treatment and clinical response. We found regionally specific changes in cortical volume (up to 7% per month) that preferentially affected the frontal and occipital lobes and paralleled the patient's clinical course, with clinical decline associated with volume loss and clinical improvement associated with volume gain.


Our results suggest that reversible cortical volume loss in anti-NMDA encephalitis has a regional specificity that mirrors many of the clinical symptoms associated with the disorder and tracks the dynamics of disease severity over time. This case illustrates how quantitative morphometric techniques can be applied to clinical imaging data to reveal patterns of brain change that may provide insight into disease pathophysiology. More widespread application of this approach might reveal regional and temporal patterns specific to different types of autoimmune encephalitis, providing a tool for diagnosis and a surrogate marker for monitoring treatment response.

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