Central pontine myelinolysis (CPM) is a neurological disorder that most frequently occurs after too rapid medical correction of sodium deficiency (hyponatremia). The rapid rise in sodium concentration is accompanied by the movement of small molecules and pulls water from brain cells. Through a mechanism that is only partly understood, the shift in water and brain molecules leads to the destruction of myelin, a substance that surrounds and protects nerve fibers. Nerve cells (neurons) can also be damaged. Certain areas of the brain are particularly susceptible to myelinolysis, especially the part of the brainstem called the pons. Some individuals will also have damage in other areas of the brain, which is called extrapontine myelinolysis (EPM). Experts estimate that 10 percent of those with CPM will also have areas of EPM.

The ideal treatment for myelinolysis is to prevent the disorder by identifying individuals at risk and following careful guidelines for evaluation and correction of hyponatremia. These guidelines aim to safely restore the serum sodium level, while protecting the brain. For those who have hyponatremia for at least 2 days, or for whom the duration is not known, the rate of rise in the serum sodium concentration should be kept below 10 mmol/L during any 24-hour period, if possible. For those who develop myelinolysis, treatment is supportive. Some physicians have tried to treat myelinolysis with steroid medication or other experimental therapies, but none has been proven effective. Individuals are likely to require extensive and prolonged physical therapy and rehabilitation. Those patients who develop parkinsonian symptoms may respond to the dopaminergic drugs that work for individuals with Parkinson’s disease.

The prognosis for myelinolysis is variable. Some individuals die and others recover completely. Although the disorder was originally considered to have a mortality rate of 50 percent or more, improved imaging techniques and early diagnosis have led to a better prognosis for many people. Most individuals improve gradually, but still continue to have challenges with speech, walking, emotional ups and downs, and forgetfulness.

Prepared by the National Institutes of Health