What Is Encephalopathy? - Definition, Symptoms & Treatment

Instructor: Danielle Haak

Danielle has a PhD in Natural Resource Sciences and a MSc in Biological Sciences

Encephalopathy is the scientific term used to describe any abnormality in the brain. Check out this lesson to learn the symptoms and treatment options for those who may experience some form of encephalopathy.

What Is Encephalopathy?

Encephalopathy is a general term used to refer to abnormal brain structure or function. This abnormality may be short-term, long-term, or permanent. It may be stable over time, get worse over time, or actually reduce in severity over time.

Causes of Encephalopathy

Because the term encephalopathy is so broad and encompasses so many diseases, there are a number of different causes. For example, the brain develops rapidly during gestation; any type of disruption or injury may lead to encephalopathy. Any inconsistencies in chemicals, physical structure, or electrical function may also lead to encephalopathy. Poisoning of the brain tissues may lead to encephalopathy and can be either intentional, such as through alcohol abuse, or unintentional, such as through carbon monoxide poisoning. Finally, it can be caused by a birth defect or an end-of-life disease, such as dementia.

The image on the left is a normal brain, and the image on the right shows a brain with severe encephalopathy
encephalopathy scan

Additional specific causes may include the following:

  • Anoxic/hypoxic encephalopathy (too little or no oxygen)
  • Hypertensive encephalopathy (high blood pressure)
  • Infectious encephalopathy (caused by bacteria, viruses, or fungi)
  • Ischemic encephalopathy (narrowing of blood vessels, decreasing flow to the brain)
  • Metabolic encephalopathy (chemical toxicity or medication/drug side effects)
  • Structural encephalopathy (head trauma or degeneration)
  • Uremic encephalopathy (kidney failure)


Just as the causes are widely varied, so are the symptoms of encephalopathy. Symptoms may include headaches, nausea, confusion, poor memory, hallucinations, incoordination, and trouble feeling physical sensations. In some cases, the symptoms mirror those of a stroke and may be severe enough to cause changes in heartbeat, temperature, and consciousness.

Treatment Options

How can such a general condition be treated? First, it's necessary to pinpoint the cause. From there, a physician can decide the best course of treatment. Reviewing the patient's medical history, the pattern of symptoms, and his or her lifestyle can help with the diagnosis and treatment. Additional tests such as blood work, imaging scans, and even a spinal tap may be necessary for complete diagnosis.

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