Acute toxic leukoencephalopathy: Potential for reversibility clinically and on MRI with diffusion-weighted and FLAIR imaging

Alexander M. McKinney, Stephen A. Kieffer, Rogerich T. Paylor, Karen S. SantaCruz, Ayse Kendi, Leandro Lucato

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

105 Scopus citations


OBJECTIVE. Toxic leukoencephalopathy may present acutely or subacutely with symmetrically reduced diffusion in the periventricular and supraventricular white matter, hereafter referred to as periventricular white matter. This entity may reverse both on imaging and clinically. However, a gathering together of the heterogeneous causes of this disorder as seen on MRI with diffusion-weighted imaging (DWI) and an analysis of their likelihood to reverse has not yet been performed. Our goals were to gather causes of acute or subacute toxic leukoencephalopathy that can present with reduced diffusion of periventricular white matter in order to promote recognition of this entity, to evaluate whether DWI with apparent diffusion coefficient (ADC) values can predict the extent of chronic FLAIR abnormality (imaging reversibility), and to evaluate whether DWI can predict the clinical outcome (clinical reversibility). MATERIALS AND METHODS. Two neuroradiologists retrospectively reviewed the MRI examinations of 39 patients with acute symptoms and reduced diffusion of periventricular white matter. The reviewers then scored the extent of abnormality on DWI and FLAIR. ADC ratios of affected white matter versus the unaffected periventricular white matter were obtained. Each patient's clinical records were reviewed to determine the cause and clinical outcome. Histology findings were available in three patients. Correlations were calculated between the initial MRI markers and both the clinical course and the follow-up extent on FLAIR using Spearman's correlation coefficient. RESULTS. Of the initial 39 patients, seven were excluded because of a nontoxic cause (hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy [HIE] or congenital genetic disorders) or because of technical errors. In the remaining 32 patients, no correlation was noted between any of the initial MRI markers (percentage of ADC reduction, DWI extent, or FLAIR extent) with the clinical outcome. Three patients had histologic correlation. However, moderate correlation was seen between the extent of abnormality on initial FLAIR and the extent on follow-up FLAIR (r = 0.441, p = 0.047). Of the 13 patients who underwent repeat MRI at 21 days or longer, the reduced diffusion resolved in all but one. Significant differences were noted between ADC values in affected white matter versus unaffected periventricular white matter on initial (p < 0.0001) but not on follow-up MRI (p = 0.13), and in affected white matter on initial versus follow-up (p = 0.0014) in those individuals who underwent repeat imaging on the same magnet (n = 9), confirming resolution of the DWI abnormalities. CONCLUSION. Acute toxic leukoencephalopathy with reduced diffusion may be clinically reversible and radiologically reversible on DWI, and may also be reversible, but to a lesser degree, on FLAIR MRI. None of the imaging markers measured in this study appears to correlate with clinical outcome, which underscores the necessity for prompt recognition of this entity. Alerting the clinician to this potentially reversible syndrome can facilitate treatment and removal of the offending agent in the early stages.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)192-206
Number of pages15
JournalAmerican Journal of Roentgenology
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jul 1 2009


  • Diffusion-weighted MRI
  • Leukoencephalopathy
  • MRI
  • Toxic leukoencephalopathy
  • White matter

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Radiology Nuclear Medicine and imaging


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