Objective: Cognitive dysfunction is a core symptom of anti-N-methyl-D-aspartate receptor (NMDAR) encephalitis, but detailed studies on prevalence, characteristics of cognitive deficits, and the potential for recovery are missing. Here, we performed a prospective longitudinal study to assess cognitive long-term outcome and identify clinical predictors.
Methods: Standardized comprehensive neuropsychological assessments were performed in 43 patients with NMDAR encephalitis 2.3 years and 4.9 years (median) after disease onset. Cognitive assessments covered executive function, working memory, verbal/visual episodic memory, attention, subjective complaints, and depression and anxiety levels. Cognitive performance of patients was compared to that of 30 healthy participants matched for age, sex, and education.
Results: All patients had persistent cognitive deficits 2.3 years after onset, with moderate or severe impairment in >80% of patients. Core deficits included memory and executive function. After 4.9 years, significant improvement of cognitive function was observed, but moderate to severe deficits persisted in two thirds of patients, despite favorable functional neurological outcomes (median modified Rankin Scale = 1). Delayed treatment, higher disease severity, and longer duration of the acute phase were predictors for impaired cognitive outcome. The recovery process was time dependent, with greater gains earlier after the acute phase, although improvements were possible for several years after disease onset.
Interpretation: Cognitive deficits are the main contributor to long-term morbidity in NMDAR encephalitis and persist beyond functional neurological recovery. Nonetheless, cognitive improvement is possible for several years after the acute phase and should be supported by continued cognitive rehabilitation. Cognition should be included as an outcome measure in future clinical studies.