Herpes Simplex Encephalitis: an Update

John W Gnann, Richard J Whitley
Current Infectious Disease Reports 2017, 19 (3): 13

PURPOSE OF REVIEW: The goal of this review is to provide an update on current thinking regarding herpes simplex encephalitis (HSE), emphasizing new information about pathogenesis, diagnosis, and immune responses. Specific questions to be addressed are the following: (1) Is there a genetic predisposition to HSE? (2) What clinical approaches have the greatest impact on improving the long-term outcomes in patients with HSE? And (3) are there immune-mediated mechanisms that may account for relapsing HSE?

RECENT FINDINGS: Toll-like receptor 3 (TLR 3) plays an important role in innate immune responses, including generation of interferons. Multiple single-gene errors in TLR 3 interferon pathways have recently been described in children that result in increased susceptibility to HSE. Conversely, studies in both animal models and humans indicate that both cytolytic viral replication and immune-mediated responses (including cytotoxic T lymphocytes and immune mechanisms mediated by TLR 2) contribute to the pathology of HSV, suggesting possible new therapeutic approaches. In terms of treatment, data clearly indicate that a longer duration between onset of symptoms and initiation of effective antiviral therapy correlates directly with less favorable clinical outcome. Recurrent or relapsing HSE may occasionally occur, but recent observations indicate that many instances of "relapsing HSE", especially in children, are more often anti-N-methyl-D-aspartate receptor (NMDAR) encephalitis triggered by the antecedent HSV infection. Innate immune responses are critical for defense against HSV; genetic defects in this system may predispose patients to HSE. During acute HSE, exuberant immune responses may contribute to the CNS pathology, suggesting that selective immunosuppressive therapy, coupled with potent antiviral drugs, may eventually play a role in the therapeutic management of HSV. While overall clinical outcomes of HSE remain suboptimal, the initiation of high-dose acyclovir therapy as early as possible in the course of the illness provides the best chance for a patient to survive with minimal neurologic damage. Distinguishing relapsing HSE from autoimmune anti-NMDAR antibody encephalitis is critically important because therapeutic approaches will be very different.

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