Sleep Medicine pp 149-157 | Cite as

Encephalitis Lethargica

  • David ParkesEmail author


The rich dictionary vocabulary of states of arousal, vigilance and tiredness lacks clear parallel in sleep–wake physiology. Von Economo gave the name encephalitis lethargica to a multifaceted illness that spread worldwide between 1917 and 1927. However, lethargy is difficult to define, with undertones of disinclination as well as sleepiness, and a main feature of the acute illness was ocular palsy and later, Parkinsonism rather than definite sleep–wake disturbance. The illness rarely ever leads to true hypersomnia, the narcoleptic syndrome, any primary circadian disturbance or insomnia. Despite this, encephalitis lethargica still poses important questions about the relationship between body and mind, the robotic or free heritage of men and women and the interaction between brain and environment that is central to sleep–wake medicine.


Lethargy Pseudosomnolence Eye movement Dreaming Parkinsonism Sleep–wake terminology 


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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Clinical NeurologyThe Maudsley Hospital and King’s College HospitalLondonUK

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