Problems with the diagnosis of idiopathic normal pressure hydrocephalus

Idiopathic normal pressure hydrocephaus (NPH) is a diagnosis of occult hydrocephalus with normal CSF pressure on LP that was first described in 1965 and is often considered one of the treatable causes of dementia.

The original paper used the now uncommon brain imaging technique of pneumoencephalography, which involved draining the CSF, injecting air as a contrast medium, and performing a brain xray:

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Figure 2 from Adams et al 1965 showing uniformly enlarged ventricles; doi: 10.1056/NEJM196507152730301

At my med school we learned NPH by the triad of “wet, wobbly, and wacky”, referring to its classic triad of symptoms: urinary incontinence, gait disturbance, and cognitive impairment.

Like many symptom triads, these symptoms are non-sensitive, with the full triad seen in <60% of patients. It is also non-specific, as urinary incontinence is seen in ~20-40% of those over 60, gait impairment is seen in ~20% over those over 75, and mild cognitive impairment is seen in ~35% of those over 70.

Espay et al explain all of this in the introduction of their critical literature review of idiopathic NPH. One of their major points is that ventricle enlargement is also non-specific, as it is common in other neurodegenerative diseases such as AD, DLB, and PSP.

Here are some of their other points:

  • There are no specific clinical, imaging, or neuropathologic findings in NPH.
  • The determination of ventricle enlargement on MRI is subjective and not standardized.
  • A “true” diagnosis is dependent upon a treatment response to CSF diversion via a ventriculoperitoneal shunt (VPS), which is circular and problematic.
  •  There has never been a well-defined RCT to evaluate the use of VPS in NPH.
  • Because many patients diagnosed with NPH may in fact have NPH that is secondary rather than a precursor to other neurodegenerative diseases, the fact that VPS may lead to short-term cognitive amelioration even in these patients suggests that VPS should still be considered as a way to improve cognition even in patients that are diagnosed with these neurodegenerative diseases.

Overall, this paper is well worth a read for people interested in treatments for dementia.