Journal of Neurology

, Volume 266, Issue 2, pp 316–329 | Cite as

Different routes of heroin intake cause various heroin-induced leukoencephalopathies

  • Mei-Yun Cheng
  • Shy-Chyi Chin
  • Yen-Chung Chang
  • Tony Wu
  • Siew-Na Lim
  • Hsiang-Yao Hsieh
  • Jung-Lung Hsu
  • Chun-Wei Chang
  • Wei-En Johnny Tseng
  • Han-Tao Li
  • Hsing-I Chiang
  • Bao-Luen Chang
  • Meng-Han Tsai
  • Long-Sun RoEmail author
Original Communication



Toxic leukoencephalopathy is a rare but critical neurological disorder in heroin abusers. Our aim is to compare the clinical manifestations, brain MRIs and prognoses of heroin-induced leukoencephalopathy by different intake routes.


We present two patients with toxic leukoencephalopathy caused by intravenous (IV) injection of heroin and 48 additional cases from systematic reviews of the literature published between 1994 and 2018.


Among the 50 heroin abusers who developed leukoencephalopathy, inhalation was the most popular route (60%), followed by IV injection (30%) and snorting (10%). Mental changes, mutism and urine/fecal incontinence were the major symptoms in patients who IV injected heroin, while cerebellar ataxia and dysarthria were more common among those who inhaled heroin. Delayed-onset encephalopathy uniquely occurred in those who IV injected heroin, whereas progressive encephalopathy was more commonly observed in those who inhaled heroin. Clinical improvement was observed in 60% of patients, the overall mortality rate was 12%, and higher mortality was observed in patients who used the inhalation route (16.7%). The hallmarks on the MRIs of those who inhaled heroin were posterior to anterior involvement of the cerebral white matter and lesions in the posterior limbs of the internal capsules, cerebellum and brainstem. In contrast, those who IV injected heroin had more frequent lesions in the subcortical U fibers and the genu of the internal capsules.


These data could help physicians make an early diagnosis and predict prognosis and suggest that prompt antioxidative or symptomatic treatments might reduce the long-term consequences and mortality of heroin-induced leukoencephalopathy.


Heroin Inhalation Intravenous Snorting Leukoencephalopathy MRI 



This work was supported by a grant to MYC from Chang Gung Memorial Hospital and National Tsing Hua University Joint Research Program (CGMH-NTHU-2014-No. CMRPG3D0631).

Author contributions

M-YC collected the clinical data, reviewed the literature and contributed to the manuscript preparation. S-CC reviewed and analyzed the brain MRI data. TW and S-NL both reviewed the EEG data. Y-CC, H-YH, J-LH, C-WC, W-EJT, H-TL, H-IC, B-LC and M-HT collected the clinical data and reviewed the literature. L-SR contributed to the manuscript preparation and final approval of the version to be published.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflicts of interest

On behalf of all authors, the corresponding author states that there is no conflict of interest.

Ethical standards

This study was approved by the Chang Gung Memorial Hospital Institutional Review Board (No: 201800826B0) and, therefore, was performed in accordance with the ethical standards established in the 1964 Declaration of Helsinki and its later amendments, and informed consent was unnecessary.

Informed consent

Informed consent is not mandatory for retrospective medical chart reviews. Details that might disclose the identity of the subjects under study should be omitted.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Mei-Yun Cheng
    • 1
    • 2
    • 3
  • Shy-Chyi Chin
    • 4
  • Yen-Chung Chang
    • 3
    • 5
  • Tony Wu
    • 1
    • 2
  • Siew-Na Lim
    • 1
    • 2
  • Hsiang-Yao Hsieh
    • 1
    • 2
  • Jung-Lung Hsu
    • 2
    • 7
  • Chun-Wei Chang
    • 1
    • 2
  • Wei-En Johnny Tseng
    • 1
    • 2
  • Han-Tao Li
    • 1
    • 2
  • Hsing-I Chiang
    • 1
    • 2
  • Bao-Luen Chang
    • 1
    • 2
  • Meng-Han Tsai
    • 6
  • Long-Sun Ro
    • 1
    • 2
    Email author
  1. 1.Department of Neurology, Linkou Medical CenterChang Gung Memorial HospitalTaoyuanTaiwan
  2. 2.College of MedicineChang Gung UniversityTaoyuanTaiwan
  3. 3.Institute of Molecular MedicineNational Tsing Hua UniversityHsinchuTaiwan
  4. 4.Department of Medical Imaging and Intervention, Linkou Medical Center, Chang Gung Memorial Hospital and College of MedicineChang Gung UniversityTaoyuanTaiwan
  5. 5.Institute of Systems NeuroscienceNational Tsing Hua UniversityHsinchuTaiwan
  6. 6.Department of NeurologyKaohsiung Chang Gung Memorial HospitalKaohsiungTaiwan
  7. 7.Graduate Institute of Humanities in Medicine and Research Center for Brain and ConsciousnessTaipei Medical University, Shuang Ho HospitalTaipeiTaiwan

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