Myelin sheaths cover many nerve fibers in the central and peripheral nervous system; they accelerate axonal transmission of neural impulses. Disorders that affect myelin interrupt nerve transmission; symptoms may reflect deficits in any part of the nervous system.
Myelin formed by oligodendroglia in the CNS differs chemically and immunologically from that formed by Schwann cells peripherally. Thus, some myelin disorders (eg, Guillain-Barré syndrome, chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy, some other peripheral nerve polyneuropathies—see Peripheral Nervous System and Motor Unit Disorders: Polyneuropathy) tend to affect primarily the peripheral nerves, and others affect primarily the CNS (see Table 1: Demyelinating Disorders: Disorders That Can Cause CNS Demyelination). The most commonly affected areas in the CNS are the brain, spinal cord, and optic nerves.
Demyelination is often secondary to an infectious, ischemic, metabolic, or hereditary disorder. In primary demyelinating disorders, cause is unknown, but an autoimmune mechanism is suspected because the disorder sometimes follows a viral infection or viral vaccination.
Demyelination tends to be segmental or patchy, affecting multiple areas simultaneously or sequentially. Remyelination often occurs, with repair, regeneration, and complete recovery of neural function. However, extensive myelin loss is usually followed by axonal degeneration and often cell body degeneration; both may be irreversible.
Demyelination should be considered in any patient with unexplained neurologic deficits. Primary demyelinating disorders are suggested by the following:
Diffuse or multifocal deficits
Sudden onset, particularly in young adults
Onset within weeks of an infection or vaccination
Deficits that wax and wane
Symptoms suggesting a specific demyelinating disorder (eg, unexplained optic neuritis or internuclear ophthalmoplegia suggesting multiple sclerosis)
Specific tests and treatment depend on the specific disorder.
Disorders That Can Cause CNS Demyelination
Phenylketonuria and other aminoacidurias
Tay-Sachs, Niemann-Pick, and Gaucher’s diseases
Krabbe’s disease and other leukodystrophies*
Leber’s hereditary optic atrophy and related mitochondrial disorders
Hypoxia and ischemia
Carbon monoxide toxicity and other syndromes of delayed hypoxic cerebral demyelination
Progressive subcortical ischemic demyelination
Central pontine myelinolysis (may also be caused by Na fluxes)
Demyelination of the corpus callosum (Marchiafava-Bignami disease)
Vitamin B12 deficiency
Direct viral invasion of CNS
Progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy
Subacute sclerosing panencephalitis
Tropical spastic paraparesis/HTLV-1–associated myelopathy
Primary demyelinating disorders
Recurrent, progressive disorders (multiple sclerosis and its variants)
Monophasic disorders such as optic neuritis, acute transverse myelitis, acute disseminated encephalomyelitis, and acute hemorrhagic leukoencephalitis
*Some subtypes may also cause peripheral demyelination.
HTLV-1 = human T-lymphotropic virus 1