Twenty of 89 consecutive patients with the acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) in whom autopsies were performed over a 3 1/2 -year period had a vacuolar myelopathy that was most severe in the lateral and posterior columns of the thoracic cord. Light and electron microscopy showed that vacuoles were surrounded by a thin myelin sheath and appeared to arise from swelling within myelin sheaths. Signs and symptoms referable to the spinal-cord lesions, including paraparesis, often accompanied by spasticity or ataxia (or both), were present in all five patients with marked pathological changes in five of seven patients with moderate changes, and in two of eight patients with mild changes. Fourteen patients were demented. The clinical presentation was sufficiently distinctive to provide a guide for antemortem diagnosis. Possible causes of the vacuolar changes include uncharacterized viral infection or a metabolic derangement related to selective nutritional deficiency.
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