Fungal and Parasitic Diseases of the Nervous System

Learning Objectives

  • Identify the most common fungi that can cause infections of the nervous system
  • Compare the major characteristics of specific fungal diseases affecting the nervous system

Fungal infections of the nervous system, called neuromycoses, are rare in healthy individuals. However, neuromycoses can be devastating in immunocompromised or elderly patients. Several eukaryotic parasites are also capable of infecting the nervous system of human hosts. Although relatively uncommon, these infections can also be life-threatening in immunocompromised individuals. In this section, we will first discuss neuromycoses, followed by parasitic infections of the nervous system.

Cryptococcocal Meningitis

Cryptococcus neoformans is a fungal pathogen that can cause meningitis. This yeast is commonly found in soils and is particularly associated with pigeon droppings. It has a thick capsule that serves as an important virulence factor, inhibiting clearance by phagocytosis. Most C. neoformans cases result in subclinical respiratory infections that, in healthy individuals, generally resolve spontaneously with no long-term consequences (see Respiratory Mycoses). In immunocompromised patients or those with other underlying illnesses, the infection can progress to cause meningitis and granuloma formation in brain tissues. Cryptococcus antigens can also serve to inhibit cell-mediated immunity and delayed-type hypersensitivity.

Micrograph of circles with rings around them.

Figure 1. An India ink-negative stain of C. neoformans showing the thick capsules around the spherical yeast cells. (credit: modification of work by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

Cryptococcus can be easily cultured in the laboratory and identified based on its extensive capsule (Figure 1). C. neoformans is frequently cultured from urine samples of patients with disseminated infections.

Prolonged treatment with antifungal drugs is required to treat cryptococcal infections. Combined therapy is required with amphotericin B plus flucytosine for at least 10 weeks. Many antifungal drugs have difficulty crossing the blood-brain barrier and have strong side effects that necessitate low doses; these factors contribute to the lengthy time of treatment. Patients with AIDS are particularly susceptible to Cryptococcus infections because of their compromised immune state. AIDS patients with cryptococcosis can also be treated with antifungal drugs, but they often have relapses; lifelong doses of fluconazole may be necessary to prevent reinfection.

Think about It

  • Why are neuromycoses infections rare in the general population?
  • How is a cryptococcal infection acquired?


Neuromycoses typically occur only in immunocompromised individuals and usually only invade the nervous system after first infecting a different body system. As such, many diseases that sometimes affect the nervous system have already been discussed in previous chapters. Table 1 presents some of the most common fungal infections associated with neurological disease. This table includes only the neurological aspects associated with these diseases; it does not include characteristics associated with other body systems.

Table 1. Neuromycoses
Disease Pathogen Signs and Symptoms Transmission Diagnostic Tests Antimicrobial Drugs
Aspergillosis Aspergillus fumigatus Meningitis, brain abscesses Dissemination from respiratory infection CSF, routine culture Amphotericin B, voriconazole
Candidiasis Candida albicans Meningitis Oropharynx or urogenital CSF, routine culture Amphotericin B, flucytosine
Coccidioidomycosis (Valley fever) Coccidioides immitis Meningitis (in about 1% of infections) Dissemination from respiratory infection CSF, routine culture Amphotericin B, azoles
Cryptococcosis Cryptococcus neoformans Meningitis, granuloma formation in brain Inhalation Negative stain of CSF, routine culture Amphotericin B, flucytosine
Histoplasmosis Histoplasma capsulatum Meningitis, granulomas in the brain Dissemination from respiratory infection CSF, routine culture Amphotericin B, itraconazole
Mucormycosis Rhizopus arrhizus Brain abscess Nasopharynx CSF, routine culture Amphotericin B, azoles

Clinical Focus: Mustafa, Resolution

This example concludes Mustafa’s story that started in Anatomy of the Nervous System and Acellular Diseases of the Nervous System.

This example continues Mustafa’s story that started in Anatomy of the Nervous System.’s new prescription for two antifungal drugs, amphotericin B and flucytosine, proved effective, and his condition began to improve. Culture results from Mustafa’s sputum, skin, and CSF samples confirmed a fungal infection. All were positive for C. neoformans. Serological tests of his tissues were also positive for the C. neoformans capsular polysaccharide antigen.

Since C. neoformans is known to occur in bird droppings, it is likely that Mustafa had been exposed to the fungus while working on the barn. Despite this exposure, Mustafa’s doctor explained to him that immunocompetent people rarely contract cryptococcal meningitis and that his immune system had likely been compromised by the anti-inflammatory medication he was taking to treat his Crohn’s disease. However, to rule out other possible causes of immunodeficiency, Mustafa’s doctor recommended that he be tested for HIV.

After Mustafa tested negative for HIV, his doctor took him off the corticosteroid he was using to manage his Crohn’s disease, replacing it with a different class of drug. After several weeks of antifungal treatments, Mustafa managed a full recovery.

Amoebic Meningitis

Micrograph of white blood cells and a large cell with a small circle in the center labeled N. fowlerii.

Figure 2. Free-living amoeba in human brain tissue from a patient suffering from PAM. (credit: modification of work by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

Primary amoebic meningoencephalitis (PAM) is caused by Naegleria fowleri. This amoeboflagellate is commonly found free-living in soils and water. It can exist in one of three forms—the infective amoebic trophozoite form, a motile flagellate form, and a resting cyst form. PAM is a rare disease that has been associated with young and otherwise healthy individuals. Individuals are typically infected by the amoeba while swimming in warm bodies of freshwater such as rivers, lakes, and hot springs. The pathogenic trophozoite infects the brain by initially entering through nasal passages to the sinuses; it then moves down olfactory nerve fibers to penetrate the submucosal nervous plexus, invades the cribriform plate, and reaches the subarachnoid space. The subarachnoid space is highly vascularized and is a route of dissemination of trophozoites to other areas of the CNS, including the brain (Figure 2). Inflammation and destruction of gray matter leads to severe headaches and fever. Within days, confusion and convulsions occur and quickly progress to seizures, coma, and death. The progression can be very rapid, and the disease is often not diagnosed until autopsy.

N. fowleri infections can be confirmed by direct observation of CSF; the amoebae can often be seen moving while viewing a fresh CSF wet mount through a microscope. Flagellated forms can occasionally also be found in CSF. The amoebae can be stained with several stains for identification, including Giemsa-Wright or a modified trichrome stain. Detection of antigens with indirect immunofluorescence, or genetic analysis with PCR, can be used to confirm an initial diagnosis. N. fowleri infections are nearly always fatal; only 3 of 138 patients with PAM in the United States have survived.[1] A new experimental drug called miltefosine shows some promise for treating these infections. This drug is a phosphotidylcholine derivative that is thought to inhibit membrane function in N. fowleri, triggering apoptosis and disturbance of lipid-dependent cell signaling pathways.[2] When administered early in infection and coupled with therapeutic hypothermia (lowering the body’s core temperature to reduce the cerebral edema associated with infection), this drug has been successfully used to treat primary amoebic encephalitis.

Granulomatous Amoebic Encephalitis

Acanthamoeba and Balamuthia species are free-living amoebae found in many bodies of fresh water. Human infections by these amoebae are rare. However, they can cause amoebic keratitis in contact lens wearers (see Protozoan and Helminthic Infections of the Eyes), disseminated infections in immunocompromised patients, and granulomatous amoebic encephalitis (GAE) in severe cases. Compared to PAM, GAE tend to be subacute infections. The microbe is thought to enter through either the nasal sinuses or breaks in the skin. It is disseminated hematogenously and can invade the CNS. There, the infections lead to inflammation, formation of lesions, and development of typical neurological symptoms of encephalitis (Figure 3). GAE is nearly always fatal.

GAE is often not diagnosed until late in the infection. Lesions caused by the infection can be detected using CT or MRI. The live amoebae can be directly detected in CSF or tissue biopsies. Serological tests are available but generally are not necessary to make a correct diagnosis, since the presence of the organism in CSF is definitive. Some antifungal drugs, like fluconazole, have been used to treat acanthamoebal infections. In addition, a combination of miltefosine and voriconazole (an inhibitor of ergosterol biosynthesis) has recently been used to successfully treat GAE. Even with treatment, however, the mortality rate for patients with these infections is high.

a) Photo of brain section with red granules in the center. b) close-up of granules.

Figure 3. (a) Brain tissue from a patient who died of granulomatous amebic encephalitis (GAE) caused by Balamuthia mandrillaris. (b) A close-up of the necrosis in the center of the brain section. (credit a, b: modifications of work by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

Think about It

  • How is granulomatous amoebic encephalitis diagnosed?

Human African Trypanosomiasis

Human African trypanosomiasis (also known as African sleeping sickness) is a serious disease endemic to two distinct regions in sub-Saharan Africa. It is caused by the insect-borne hemoflagellate Trypanosoma brucei. The subspecies Trypanosoma brucei rhodesiense causes East African trypanosomiasis (EAT), and another subspecies, Trypanosoma brucei gambiense causes West African trypanosomiasis (WAT). A few hundred cases of EAT are currently reported each year.[3] WAT is more commonly reported and tends to be a more chronic disease. Around 7000 to 10,000 new cases of WAT are identified each year.[4]

Micrograph of red circles labeled red blood cells and worm-shaped cells labeled Trypanosoma brucei.

Figure 4. Trypanosoma brucei, the causative agent of African sleeping sickness, in a human blood smear. (credit: modification of work by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

T. brucei is primarily transmitted to humans by the bite of the tsetse fly (Glossina spp.). Soon after the bite of a tsetse fly, a chancre forms at the site of infection. The flagellates then spread, moving into the circulatory system (Figure 4). These systemic infections result in an undulating fever, during which symptoms persist for two or three days with remissions of about a week between bouts. As the disease enters its final phase, the pathogens move from the lymphatics into the CNS. Neurological symptoms include daytime sleepiness, insomnia, and mental deterioration. In EAT, the disease runs its course over a span of weeks to months. In contrast, WAT often occurs over a span of months to years.

Although a strong immune response is mounted against the trypanosome, it is not sufficient to eliminate the pathogen. Through antigenic variation, Trypanosoma can change their surface proteins into over 100 serological types. This variation leads to the undulating form of the initial disease. The initial septicemia caused by the infection leads to high fevers. As the immune system responds to the infection, the number of organisms decrease, and the clinical symptoms abate. However, a subpopulation of the pathogen then alters its surface coat antigens by antigenic variation and evades the immune response. These flagellates rapidly proliferate and cause another bout of disease. If untreated, these infections are usually fatal.

Clinical symptoms can be used to recognize the early signs of African trypanosomiasis. These include the formation of a chancre at the site of infection and Winterbottom’s sign. Winterbottom’s sign refers to the enlargement of lymph nodes on the back of the neck—often indicative of cerebral infections. Trypanosoma can be directly observed in stained samples including blood, lymph, CSF, and skin biopsies of chancres from patients. Antibodies against the parasite are found in most patients with acute or chronic disease. Serologic testing is generally not used for diagnosis, however, since the microscopic detection of the parasite is sufficient. Early diagnosis is important for treatment. Before the nervous system is involved, drugs like pentamidine (an inhibitor of nuclear metabolism) and suramin (mechanism unclear) can be used. These drugs have fewer side effects than the drugs needed to treat the second stage of the disease. Once the sleeping sickness phase has begun, harsher drugs including melarsoprol (an arsenic derivative) and eflornithine can be effective. Following successful treatment, patients still need to have follow-up examinations of their CSF for two years to detect possible relapses of the disease. The most effective means of preventing these diseases is to control the insect vector populations.

Think about It

  • What is the symptom of a systemic Trypanosoma infection?
  • What are the symptoms of a neurological Trypanosoma infection?
  • Why are trypanosome infections so difficult to eradicate?


Toxoplasma gondii is an ubiquitous intracellular parasite that can cause neonatal infections. Cats are the definitive host, and humans can become infected after eating infected meat or, more commonly, by ingesting oocysts shed in the feces of cats (see Parasitic Infections of the Circulatory and Lymphatic Systems). T. gondii enters the circulatory system by passing between the endothelial cells of blood vessels.[5] Most cases of toxoplasmosis are asymptomatic. However, in immunocompromised patients, neurotoxoplasmosis caused by T. gondii infections are one of the most common causes of brain abscesses.[6] The organism is able to cross the blood-brain barrier by infecting the endothelial cells of capillaries in the brain. The parasite reproduces within these cells, a step that appears to be necessary for entry to the brain, and then causes the endothelial cell to lyse, releasing the progeny into brain tissues. This mechanism is quite different than the method it uses to enter the bloodstream in the first place.[7]

The brain lesions associated with neurotoxoplasmosis can be detected radiographically using MRI or CAT scans (Figure 5). Diagnosis can be confirmed by direct observation of the organism in CSF. RT-PCR assays can also be used to detect T. gondii through genetic markers.

Micrograph of sphere wit red dots.

Figure 5. This Toxoplasma gondii cyst, observed in mouse brain tissue, contains thousands of inactive parasites. (credit: modification of work by USDA)

Treatment of neurotoxoplasmosis caused by T. gondii infections requires six weeks of multi-drug therapy with pyrimethamine, sulfadiazine, and folinic acid. Long-term maintenance doses are often required to prevent recurrence.

Think about It

  • Under what conditions is Toxoplasma infection serious?
  • How does Toxoplasma circumvent the blood-brain barrier?


Cysticercosis is a parasitic infection caused by the larval form of the pork tapeworm, Taenia solium. When the larvae invade the brain and spinal cord, the condition is referred to as neurocysticercosis. This condition affects millions of people worldwide and is the leading cause of adult onset epilepsy in the developing world.[8]

The life cycle of T. solium is discussed in Helminthic Infections of the Gastrointestinal Tract. Following ingestion, the eggs hatch in the intestine to form larvae called cysticerci. Adult tapeworms form in the small intestine and produce eggs that are shed in the feces. These eggs can infect other individuals through fecal contamination of food or other surfaces. Eggs can also hatch within the intestine of the original patient and lead to an ongoing autoinfection. The cystercerci, can migrate to the blood and invade many tissues in the body, including the CNS.

Neurocysticercosis is usually diagnosed through noninvasive techniques. Epidemiological information can be used as an initial screen; cysticercosis is endemic in Central and South America, Africa, and Asia. Radiological imaging (MRI and CT scans) is the primary method used to diagnose neurocysticercosis; imaging can be used to detect the one- to two-centimeter cysts that form around the parasites (Figure 6). Elevated levels of eosinophils in the blood can also indicate a parasitic infection. EIA and ELISA are also used to detect antigens associated with the pathogen.

Brain scans with small lumps (look like pimples) indicated by arrows.

Figure 6. Brain CT scans of sagittal (left) and axial (right) sections of a brain with neurocysticercosis. Numerous cysts are visible in both images, as indicated by the arrows. (credit: modification of work by Segamwenge IL, Kioko NP)

The treatment for neurocysticercosis depends on the location, number, size, and stage of cysticerci present. Antihelminthic chemotherapy includes albendazole and praziquantel. Because these drugs kill viable cysts, they may acutely increase symptoms by provoking an inflammatory response caused by the release of Taenia cysticerci antigens, as the cysts are destroyed by the drugs. To alleviate this response, corticosteroids that cross the blood-brain barrier (e.g., dexamethasone) can be used to mitigate these effects. Surgical intervention may be required to remove intraventricular cysts.

Parasitic Diseases of the Nervous System

Parasites that successfully invade the nervous system can cause a wide range of neurological signs and symptoms. Often, they inflict lesions that can be visualized through radiologic imaging. A number of these infections are fatal, but some can be treated (with varying levels of success) by antimicrobial drugs (Table 2).

Table 2. Parasitic Diseases of the Nervous System
Disease Pathogen Signs and Symptoms Transmission Diagnostic Tests Antimicrobial Drugs
Granulomatous amoebic encephalitis (GAE) Acanthamoeba spp., Balamuthia mandrillaris Inflammation, lesions in CNS, almost always fatal Freshwater ameobae invade CNS via breaks in skin or sinuses CT scan, MRI, CSF Fluconazole, miltefosine, voriconazole
Human African trypanosomiasis Trypanosoma brucei gambiense, T. brucei rhodesiense Chancre, Winterbottom’s sign, undulating fever, lethargy, insomnia, usually fatal if untreated Protozoan transmitted via bite of tsetse fly Blood smear Pentamidine and suramine (initial phase); melarsoprol and eflornithine (final phase)
Neurocysticercosis Taenia solium Brain cysts, epilepsy Ingestion of tapeworm eggs in fecally contaminated food or surfaces CT scan, MRI Albendazole, praziquantel, dexamethasone
Neurotoxoplasmosis Toxoplasma gondii Brain abscesses, chronic encephalitis Protozoan transmitted via contact with oocytes in cat feces CT scan, MRI, CSF Pyrimethamine, sulfadiazine, folinic acid
Primary amoebic meningoencephalitis (PAM) Naegleria fowleri Headache, seizures, coma, almost always fatal Freshwater ameobae invade brain via nasal passages CSF, IFA, PCR Miltefosine (experimental)

Think about It

  • What neurological condition is associated with neurocysticercosis?
  • How is neurocysticercosis diagnosed?

Key Concepts and Summary

  • Neuromycoses are uncommon in immunocompetent people, but immunocompromised individuals with fungal infections have high mortality rates. Treatment of neuromycoses require prolonged therapy with antifungal drugs at low doses to avoid side effects and overcome the effect of the blood-brain barrier.
  • Some protist infections of the nervous systems are fatal if not treated, including primary amoebic meningitis, granulomatous amoebic encephalitis, human African trypanosomiasis, and neurotoxoplasmosis.
  • The various forms of ameobic encephalitis caused by the different amoebic infections are typically fatal even with treatment, but they are rare.
  • African trypanosomiasis is a serious but treatable disease endemic to two distinct regions in sub-Saharan Africa caused by the insect-borne hemoflagellate Trypanosoma brucei.
  • Neurocysticercosis is treated using antihelminthic drugs or surgery to remove the large cysts from the CNS.

Multiple Choice

Which of these diseases results in meningitis caused by an encapsulated yeast?

  1. cryptococcosis
  2. histoplasmosis
  3. candidiasis
  4. coccidiomycosis

What kind of stain is most commonly used to visualize the capsule of cryptococcus?

  1. Gram stain
  2. simple stain
  3. negative stain
  4. fluorescent stain

Which of the following is the causative agent of East African trypanosomiasis?

  1. Trypanosoma cruzi
  2. Trypanosoma vivax
  3. Trypanosoma brucei rhodanese
  4. Trypanosoma brucei gambiense

Which of the following is the causative agent of primary amoebic meningoencephalitis?

  1. Naegleria fowleri
  2. Entameba histolyticum
  3. Amoeba proteus
  4. Acanthamoeba polyphaga

What is the biological vector for African sleeping sickness?

  1. mosquito
  2. tsetse fly
  3. deer tick
  4. sand fly

How do humans usually contract neurocysticercosis?

  1. the bite of an infected arthropod
  2. exposure to contaminated cat feces
  3. swimming in contaminated water
  4. ingestion of undercooked pork

Which of these is the most important cause of adult onset epilepsy?

  1. neurocysticercosis
  2. neurotoxoplasmosis
  3. primary amoebic meningoencephalitis
  4. African trypanosomiasis

Fill in the Blank

The __________ is the main virulence factor of Cryptococcus neoformans.

The drug of choice for fungal infections of the nervous system is __________.

The larval forms of a tapeworm are known as __________.

__________ sign appears as swollen lymph nodes at the back of the neck in early African trypanosomiasis.

__________ African trypanosomiasis causes a chronic form of sleeping sickness.

The definitive host for Toxoplasma gondii is __________.

Trypanosomes can evade the immune response through __________ variation.

Think about It

  1. Why do nervous system infections by fungi require such long treatment times?
  2. Briefly describe how humans are infected by Naegleria fowleri.
  3. Briefly describe how humans can develop neurocysticercosis.
  4. Fungal meningoencephalitis is often the ultimate cause of death for AIDS patients. What factors make these infections more problematic than those of bacterial origin?
  5. Compare East African trypanosomiasis with West African trypanosomiasis.
  6. The graph shown tracks the body temperature of a patient infected with Trypanosoma brucei. How would you describe this pattern, and why does it occur?
Graph with Days on the X axis and Temperature on the Y axis. There is a peak to 40 degrees C early on then a drop back to normal temperatures (37 degree C) for 7 days. Then another peak, then another drop to normal for 9 days, then another peak and then another drop to normal for 9 days.

(credit: modification of work by Wellcome Images)

  1. US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "Naegleria fowleri—Primary Amoebic Meningoencephalitis (PAM)—Amebic Encephalitis," 2016. Accessed June 30, 2016.
  2. Dorlo, Thomas PC, Manica Balasegaram, Jos H. Beijnen, and Peter J. de Vries, "Miltefosine: A Review of Its Pharmacology and Therapeutic Efficacy in the Treatment of Leishmaniasis," Journal of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy 67, no. 11 (2012): 2576-97.
  3. US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "Parasites – African Trypanosomiasis (also known as Sleeping Sickness), East African Trypanosomiasis FAQs," 2012. Accessed June 30, 2016.
  4. US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "Parasites – African Trypanosomiasis (also known as Sleeping Sickness), Epidemiology & Risk Factors," 2012. Accessed June 30, 2016.
  5. Carruthers, Vern B., and Yasuhiro Suzuki, "Effects of Toxoplasma gondii Infection on the Brain," Schizophrenia Bulletin 33, no. 3 (2007): 745-51.
  6. Uppal, Gulshan, "CNS Toxoplasmosis in HIV," 2015. Accessed June 30, 2016.
  7. Konradt, Christoph, Norikiyo Ueno, David A. Christian, Jonathan H. Delong, Gretchen Harms Pritchard, Jasmin Herz, David J. Bzik et al., "Endothelial Cells Are a Replicative Niche for Entry of Toxoplasma gondii to the Central Nervous System," Nature Microbiology 1 (2016): 16001.
  8. DeGiorgio, Christopher M., Marco T. Medina, Reyna Durón, Chi Zee, and Susan Pietsch Escueta, "Neurocysticercosis," Epilepsy Currents 4, no. 3 (2004): 107-11.