Diagnosing Lyme Disease in Children With Neuropsychiatric Illness

Borrelia burgdorferi, lyme disease
Borrelia burgdorferi, lyme disease
Health professionals from many disciplines need to be able to recognize the clinical presentations, essential diagnostic tests, and treatment approach of Lyme neuroborreliosis.

Lyme disease can present with a multitude of symptoms that often mimick other diseases, making differential diagnosis difficult. Neurologic involvement has been reported in up to 15% of untreated Borrelia burgdorferi infection,1 which can be devastating, particularly in children and young adults, who have been reported to be more at risk. According to the US Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention (CDC), Lyme disease is on the rise.2 Each year, at least 300,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with Lyme disease, with the highest infection rates occurring in children age 5 to 10 years.2,3

Lyme neuroborreliosis can affect any part of the nervous system, and there are a wide range of neurologic and psychiatric symptoms that can manifest weeks, months, or even years after the initial infection. For example, memory impairment, irritability, and somnolence have been reported months to years after the initial classic presentation of Lyme disease, and encephalopathy has been reported to occur more than 10 years after the onset of the disease.4,5 The presenting neurologic symptoms, including facial palsy, debilitating fatigue, various levels of cognitive loss, psychiatric symptoms, behavior changes, and learning difficulties have a significant and negative effect on the critical stages of child development, including school attendance and decline in school performance.6,7

Full recovery from Lyme neuroborreliosis can be achieved when the disease is diagnosed promptly and accurately and appropriate treatment is initiated. However, there is a general lack of understanding of Lyme disease among physicians, and Lyme neuroborreliosis is notoriously very difficult to recognize and diagnose in children. Shannon Delaney, MD, MA, director of child and adolescent research and evaluation at the Lyme and Tick-Borne Diseases Research Center at Columbia University Medical Center in New York told Rheumatology Advisor that, “Neuroborreliosis can be missed because it is not considered in the differential [diagnosis] and because spinal taps are often not [performed] unless a child has very obvious symptoms of encephalitis or meningitis.”

The overlap of symptoms with other neurologic, cognitive, and psychiatric symptoms contributes to the delayed diagnosis or the misdiagnosis. For example, case reports of neuropsychological manifestations of Lyme disease include Tourette syndrome, acute delirium, catatonia, and psychosis.8

Dr Delaney advises that, “Any child with acute onset neuropsychiatric symptoms, such as [obsessive-compulsive disorder], psychosis, restricted eating, sensory issues, urinary frequency, anxiety, cognitive dysfunction, or extreme fatigue should be given a set of lab tests to rule out typical infectious causes of Pediatric Acute-onset Neuropsychiatric Syndrome/Pediatric Autoimmune Neuropsychiatric Disorder Associated with Streptococcal Infections.” Dr Delaney added, “Testing should include a Lyme ELISA [enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay], preferably Borrelia burgdorferi C6 peptide, and a Lyme Western blot to evaluate for exposure to Lyme disease.”

Because symptoms of Lyme neuroborreliosis affect the joints, muscle, and the central and peripheral nervous systems, health professionals from many disciplines, including neurology and psychiatry, need to be able to recognize the clinical presentations, know the essential diagnostic tests, and understand the treatment approach. Erythema migrans is a distinct early presentation of localized Lyme disease,8 and for the experienced physician, this presentation can be sufficient for a clinical diagnosis. Serologic testing at this early disease stage is of limited diagnostic value because of the high incidence of false negative results.

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When serologic testing is indicated, the Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA) recommend enzyme immunoassay for Lyme-specific antibodies, confirmed with Western immunoblot assay for immunoglobin G; however, many physicians struggle with the correct interpretation of Western blot results.9,10 Dr Delaney cautions, “Clinicians should be aware that the 2-tier method of testing (ELISA and Western blot), while informative, can have false negative [results] and, less frequently, false positive [results].” Furthermore, although several tests for Lyme disease are available commercially, many are not validated for clinical use, and the CDC strongly warns against their use, as they have been associated with high levels of misdiagnosis.8

The IDSA recommends antibiotics for the treatment of Lyme disease for a period of 10 to 21 days for early disease and 2 to 4 weeks for late disease.9 Despite the recommendations, studies that distinguish the treatment of Lyme disease from that of Lyme neuroborreliosis are lacking.9 In fact, a systematic review that examined antibiotic treatment for Lyme neuroborreliosis in 450 participants included no trials conducted in the United States.11 The review found no clear evidence for the additional efficacy of repeated antibiotics beyond the initial treatment.11

In addition, prolonged use of antibiotics to treat post-Lyme disease symptoms has not been shown to be efficacious and is generally not recommended, as fatalities from Clostridium difficile and Candida parapssilosis have been reported.8 “Clinically, we do recognize that there are a subset of patients who only get better after a repeated course of antibiotics,” said Dr Delaney, adding, “In the future as the science progresses, hopefully, we will be able to make use of blood tests that provide biomarkers indicating who needs additional antibiotic therapy and who needs another approach. This is the age of precision medicine and our goal at Columbia is to help in the identification of these essential biomarkers that will help guide treatment.”

The need for additional research is evident to better define the optimal use of antibiotics for the treatment of Lyme neuroborreliosis.11 The effect of long-term use of antibiotics also deserves attention. Inappropriate antibiotic use can alter the balance of the gut microbiome and may lead to side effects. The effect of long-term antibiotics on the gut microbiome is an area of emerging study and should provide very useful information in the future regarding whether or not the alterations themselves are contributing to ongoing symptoms. Until more research is available to better guide the management of the neurologic manifestations of B burgdorferi infection, it is important that physicians have heightened awareness of Lyme disease. They must also have a clinical suspicion of Lyme neuroborreliosis in children who present with neuropsychiatric illness and must diagnose the disease promptly and provide appropriate treatment, which may include referral for appropriate symptom management.

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