Subacute Sclerosing Panencephalitis

Written by Julie Roddick
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD

Subacute Sclerosing Panencephalitis (SSPE)

Subacute sclerosing panencephalitis (SSPE) is a debilitating and progressive brain disorder. Unfortunately, it is always fatal. SSPE is related to the measles virus (rubeola). It is caused by an abnormal and unusual reaction of your immune system to the measles virus. This results in inflammation, swelling, and irritation of the brain. It may occur years after recovering from the measles. It usually appears in children and adolescents, and more often in males than females.

SSPE is a very rare disease. In countries like the Unites States where most young children are routinely given the measles vaccine, the incidence of SSPE is less than 10 each year. In countries where there are not standard immunization programs, the incidence is higher. Immunization from the measles virus is the only way to prevent SSPE.

Contracting measles does not necessarily mean that you will develop SSPE later on. Even if you have had the measles, SSPE is rare. Why SSPE develops is still under speculation, but the primary theory is it is from an abnormal immune response to the measles virus or possibly due to mutated forms of the virus.

What Are the Symptoms of Subacute Sclerosing Panencephalitis?

The following is a list of symptoms of the effects of subacute sclerosing panencephalitis on the brain:

  • gradual change in behavior
  • unusual behavior
  • dementia
  • decrease in cognitive and social abilities
  • muscle spasm and jerking
  • lethargy
  • difficulty with schoolwork
  • seizures
  • unsteady gait
  • tense or lax muscles
  • weakness in both legs
  • coma

If the patient is experiencing seizures, precautions need to be taken to avoid any injuries that may occur during the seizures.

How Is Subacute Sclerosing Panencephalitis Diagnosed?

After inquiring about your medical history your doctor will check for the following signs of SSPE:

  • damage to the optic nerve
  • damage to the retinas in the eyes
  • muscle twitching
  • poor performance on movement and coordination tests

In addition, your doctor may request some further testing, including:

  • EEG - electroencephalogram
  • MRI scan
  • spinal tap
  • serum antibody titer - a blood test to check for a previous measles infection

Are There Any Treatments For Subacute Sclerosing Panencephalitis?

There is no cure for SSPE. However, your doctor can prescribe some antiviral drugs that may slow the progression, and anticonvulsant drugs to control the seizures. In most cases people with SSPE live one to two years, but occasionally longer.

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