UTIs are often considered in the differential diagnosis of causes of delirium in the elderly. Though largely speculative, 2 possible pathophysiologic basis for this association are suggested:1-3
- Direct brain insult (eg, in the setting of sepsis/hypotension)
- Indirect aberrant stress response, involving cytokines/inflammatory pathways, hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal [HPA] axis and sympathetic nervous system (SNS). One or both pathways can interact with the neurotransmitter and intracellular signal transduction systems underlying delirium in the brain, which may already be impaired in the elderly due to age-related or other pathologic changes.
The indirect aberrant stress pathway suggests that not only pain and discomfort (eg from dysuria) can contribute to delirium but UTI-associated circulating cytokines may also cause delirium. Indeed, a large study of older adults undergoing elective surgery found a significant association between delirium postoperatively (postop day 2) and serum proinflammatory cytokine levels such as IL-6. 4
The corollary is that bacteriuria is unlikely to be associated with delirium in the absence of significant systemic inflammatory response, pain or discomfort. We just need to do proper studies to prove it!
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1.Trzepacz P, van der Mast R. The neuropathophysiology of delirium. In Lindesay J, Rockwood K, Macdonald A (Eds.). Delirium in old age, pp. 51–90. Oxford University Press, Oxford , 2002.
2.Flacker JM, Lipsitz LA. Neural mechanisms of delirium: current hypotheses and evolving concepts. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci. 1999; 54: B239–B246 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10411009
3. Maclullich AM, Ferguson KJ, Miller T, de Rooij SE, Cunningham C. Unravelling the pathophysiology of delirium: a focus on the role of aberrant stress responses. J Psychosom Res. 2008;65:229–38. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18707945
4. Vasunilashom SM, Ngo L, Inouye SK, et al. Cytokines and postoperative delirium in older patients undergoing major elective surgery. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci 2015;70:1289-95. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4817082/pdf/glv083.pdf
Contributed by Henrietta Afari MD, Mass General Hospital, Boston, MA